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HILLSVILLE –– It doesn’t seem like that long ago to those who experienced it firsthand.
Carroll County’s most recent venture to the state tournament in 1991 seems like just a few years back to those who followed the Cavaliers then. Even the back-to-back region championship teams in 1979 and 1980, there’s no way those guys are in their 50s now.
But on the other hand, the gap between today and three years ago may as well be an eternity.
Life wasn’t so much fun for Carroll County basketball players and their fans during the 2009-10 season. Nobody showed up in togas or dressed like beach bums. The house was definitely not packed. And the success rate? A mirror image. Two wins in a season, reflected against a near-spotless record and viewed through three years of time, seems so much more distant.
“It was miserable,” said senior guard Ryan Gravley, who endured a 2-18 freshman year alongside classmate Austin Horton. “We were losing everything.”
At 24-2, the Cavaliers haven’t done much losing, period, this year, and will seek the program’s first state semifinal appearance since 1980 when they open Group AA Division 4 state tournament play Saturday night at the Salem Civic Center against E.C. Glass. The winner advances to the state final four in Richmond next week. Should that be Carroll County, there will be three members of the team who know what it’s like on the other end of the spectrum.
“We were just hoping that every mistake those kids made as freshmen and sophomores would pay off their senior year,” said Carroll County coach Brad Hawks, who was in his second year at CCHS during that two-win season. “They stuck with it, and it’s definitely paying off now.”
With some talent on the eighth-grade team and an undefeated freshman team, Hawks recognized the potential in this group way back then.
“This mixture of seniors and juniors, this is the group that I’ve been telling people about since I took the job five years ago,” Hawks said. “I told them that we’ve got a group coming that is going to be tough to beat, and if they play together they’ve got a chance to do something special. And that’s been the case so far this year.”
“We just kept working and stayed together and got better,” said Gravley. “And he we are.”
The ‘here’ of which Gravley speaks is a region championship and the state tournament, in which E.C. Glass will provide a worthy quarterfinal opponent. The Hilltoppers, a Group AAA school two years ago, enter the tournament as the Region III runners-up after losing their title game to fellow Lynchburg school Heritage.
Glass is built around Seminole District player of the year Karl Overstreet, who stands between 6-foot-8 and 6-10, depending on the source.
“He’ a smart, athletic basketball player,” Hawks said. “They’ve got two guards that look like twins, both about 5-7 and quick as cats, and two wings, both about 6-5. They’ll be tough to beat.”
The Hilltoppers saw a 10-game winning streak snapped in the Region III finals.
“They seem to play a lot like we do, from the film I’ve seen and the scouting reports I’ve gotten,” said Hawks. “But that big kid really worries me. Their three big kids worry me.”
Hawks said the Cavaliers will try to get Overstreet out of the lane as much as possible. He does feel Gravley and fellow ballhandler Gunnar Beamer can take their defenders off the dribble, leaving them the option of shooting over the Glass center or dishing off.
“He’ll control a lot of what we do there,” Hawks said.
The Cavaliers scheduled a February game at Salem Civic Center in preparation for a possible postseason trip there, facing talented Virginia Episcopal and incurring one of their two losses. It’s something Hawks feels will be of benefit.
“I definitely think it will help,” he said. “That, and the caliber of team we played down there. That team’s got six Division I players. I don’t think we’ll see anybody that could match up with them.”
One key facets of Carroll’s region title run will be missing Saturday night, or at least its full effect will likely not be felt. As a high schooler, a collegian and now a coach, Hawks has been around a lot of basketball in a lot of venues. Few, if any, match the atmosphere in Carroll’s gym during a big game, thanks to a very energetic and creative student section.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to hear them down there,” said Hawks. “We’re taking some fan buses, so hopefully they’ll be down there as wild and crazy as always.”
The bunch reminds Hawks of his days at Tusculum College, where, like Carroll, a core group of baseball players fanned the flames of a vibrant student following.
“It’s definitely one of the best atmospheres I’ve been a part of,” he said. “I told the guys that [the region title win] was right up there with getting to go to the Division II national tournament my senior year. Just the experience, cutting the nets down, that’s something the kids will never forget.”