My second year: A case of the ‘Terrific Twos!’

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 5, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

Three school sports seasons, hundreds of games, millions of words. That’s a normal year in the life of a sports reporter. For me, year number two has come to a satisfying end. Flipping through my piles of articles, I now embark on the toughest task of the year; fiding the 10 moments that made me glad that I decided to write for this paper. So just sit back, relax, and come with my on the journey through my second year of writing, editing, photographing, scribbling, typing, recording, and performing every other task of a one-man sports department! Please remember that these events are in no particular order.

10. Meeting celebrities

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This comes first because it’s strictly personal. When I started working for the Suffolk News-Herald, I never dreamed that so many prominent sports and entertainment figures would be heading to South Hampton Roads. Over the past year, I’ve met Bo Jackson (my boyhood idol), NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr., former World Wrestling Entertainment champion Shawn Michaels, and, finally, on July 3, my hero, icon, legend, role model, a man who is a household name around the globe: &uot;Weird Al&uot; Yankovic!

But do you know what I discovered? Sure, these people are more well-known than most of us will ever be. Yes, they’re used to seeing their names and faces on television and magazines across the world. But under all the glamour and allure, they’re still just normal people. They have the same emotions and feelings as &uot;normal folk.&uot; Sure, it’s easy to get nervous when meeting people that we’re used to seeing in the media, but deep down, they’re just like everyone else.

9. I win an award

March 2003: Getting my first Virginia Press Association award. Sorry, one more personal achievement. In early January, I was notified that I’d won a second place in the category of feature story writing in the Virginia Press Association awards competition for my story about David Birdsong and his Pop Warner football team, the Nansemond-Suffolk Saints. The story was one of the best I’ve ever written, but the hardest part was keeping my win a secret until mid-March!

8. NRHS tourney win

Nansemond River wins Southeastern district basketball tournament. Aside from an early loss to crosstown rival Lakeland (which we’ll get to in due time), the Warriors had charged to the regular season title, much like they did in 2001-2. But last year, the team faltered in the final stretch, losing to Indian River in the tournament and dropping their first regional game to Heritage. This time around, however, Marquie Cooke, Latron Demiel, Dennis Conley, newcomer Alvester Franklin, and the rest of the River squad buckled down, whooped up on Oscar Smith and Western Branch to take the tournament title, and then won their first regional game since 1998, defeating Granby.

7. Lady Cavs take district

Lakeland wins another district title. The Lady Cavaliers took a big hit from graduation in the off-season, losing seven players who made up the greatest squad in Suffolk history in 2001-2. The team stumbled (at least, for Lakeland) early, falling to Kecoughtan and local rival Nansemond River. Regardless, coach Tara McClenney (whose last name has since changed to Worley) told me that, regardless of what people thought or how many players she’d lost, the team’s plans were to be right back where they were the year before.

Soon, the magic was back. Then-unproven players like Katelyn Smither and Kelsey Cutchins (both of whom are back this year) stepped in to pick up the slack left by the large departure. Soon, Lakeland was as strong as ever, and on Oct. 21, defeated Nansemond River in a playoff to snatch up their second-straight title. The Lady Cavaliers took care of Great Bridge and Western Branch in the district tournament later that week, and beat Granby in the first round of regional competition.

6. Lucky Seven repeat

Bennett’s Creek repeats &uot;Lucky Seven&uot; feat. Just as it did in 2002, Bennett’s Creek little league sent seven All-Star teams to state competition. At the BC home field of Driver Elementary School, the 11-12, junior and senior softball teams charged through the competition, while all four baseball teams did the job over at Portsmouth’s Cavalier Manor.

5. Senior games

May 29, 2003. The culmination of the Senior Games. For the last half of May, I did some freelance work for a Florida paper about the National Senior Games, which were being held for the first time in Hampton Roads. Throughout Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Newport News, I watched dozens of senior citizens from across the country show their skills in bowling, softball, archery, horseshoes, and swimming.

It was one of the most inspirational things I’d ever seen. Several of the participants had suffered heart attacks, strokes, broken bones, and other health problems that might have put a lesser athlete into retirement. But these people, showing more guts that most competitors half their age, kept plugging along, giving it all they had.

Here in the most southern part of Hampton Roads, we were represented by Helen Nixon of Courtland, who had won a bronze medal in horseshoe tossing. The only Virginian in the 85-89 age group became the first area woman to win such a medal. In 40 or 50 years when I’m as old as these competitors were, I just hope I have one-tenth of their drive and determination.

4. NSA diamond title

May 16, 2003: Nanse-mond-Suffolk Academy brings home a baseball title. After compiling a disappointing 4-4 regular-season record, the Nansemond-Suffolk Academy (NSA) baseball team backed into the TCIS tournament seeded fifth. With conference powerhouses Greenbrier Chris-tian and Cape Henry (both of whom had soundly defeated the Saints early in the season) around, few gave NSA a chance.

Unfortunately for the rest of the TCIS, the Saints knew they could win, starting off with a 2-1 victory over Norfolk Academy. Now, however, NSA had to beat reigning champ Greenbrier, which had stomped the Saints only the week before.

No matter. Adam Keeling doubled home Jack Wright, Robert Crumpler, and Todd Harrell, and the pitching of Jason Rock shut the Gators down in an 8-3 victory.

Could a miracle truly occur? Definitely. For in their battle with Catholic for the title, the Saints weren’t just thinking victory; they wanted revenge for the April 17 embarrassment that the Crusaders had pulled on the NSA field, scoring all their runs in the top of the seventh for a 9-6 victory.

With the score tied at three in the fifth, Robert Crumpler scored to give the Saints the lead. Bo Garner singled home Keeling, John Tuttle brought home Ryan Johnson, and Jack Wright scored Garner and Tuttle for an 8-3 lead. The Crusaders scored two runs in the bottom of the inning, but Crumper and tournament MVP Harrell took care of them from the mound, and the Saints had their first title since 1993.

3. Friends say goodbye

April 28, 2003. Friends and family say goodbye to a local legend. I never got to know Randy Burden as anything but a baseball player. To me, he was a former Nansemond River star who had helped the team finish in the top five in the state in 1995-6 and 1996-7. Burden then went on to become the first Chowan College graduate to be drafted into the major leagues, being selected by the World Series champion Anaheim Angels. After a season with the Provo (Utah) Angels, Burden had been working hard to sharpen the pitching skills that might have one day gotten him to Edison Field.

But on Dec. 6, it all came to a tragic end. The 23-year-old was found dead at his home, from a faulty heart valve.

As horrible as Burden’s death was, the life he led was one that his friends and family could remember with a smile. I found that out on April 28, when dozens of the people that Burden had touched came together to remember him at a ceremony at Nansemond River. Several of Burden’s teammates and coaches from River and Chowan paid tribute to him and his family by retiring his number of 18. On the River dugout (which Burden painted during his years at the school) will forever display the words, &uot;In Memory of Randy Burden, #18.&uot;

As a fitting footnote to the story, all four River baseball and softball teams charged past Lakeland after the ceremony. Maybe, just maybe, they had a little extra help.

2. Upset of the year

Jan. 10, 2003: Mike Camp’s jumper gives Lakeland the upset of the year. The best boy’s basketball game I’ve ever covered. On one side, there was Nansemond River, the proverbial workhorse who overwhelmed virtually every opponent they’d faced for the past two seasons. On the other, there was Lakeland, which had fiery talent but a tendency to burn out over the last two quarters.

This day, it seemed like the Warriors might have an easy night, jumping out to a 28-10 lead over the first 12 minutes. But Reginald Evans, Kenneth Reid and Eric Ruffin got Lakeland to within 34-26 as the first half ended, and Mary Plenty, Marcus Artis, Evans and Ruffin knocked in 11 quick points to open the third, giving their team back the lead. Neither team was able to go up by more than five for the remainder, but Cooke swished a free throw with four seconds left to tie the score at 59.

Plenty fired a cross-court pass to Evans, who missed a three-pointer as the clock ticked down. Camp, who’d scored only two points, was right there, and swished a jumper from the baseline as the buzzer sounded, sending the jammed Lakeland gym into hysterics.

And it all worked out for everyone. The one small blemish didn’t keep River from being known as one of the most dominant teams in the state, one small bump in the road on their way to their first tournament title since 1998. Lakeland, on the other hand, could brag about being the little fireball that, for one brief, poignant momemt, beat the state’s best.

1. Winners never quit

The Nansemond River football team proves that winners never quit. Normally, I’d have left this blank. But this was one of the most heart-warming events in Suffolk history (not just sports).

No one gave the Warrior football team a chance. Why should they? The team had managed just one district victory (and four wins overall) in the past two seasons. As the 2002-3 year began, it seemed like the nightmare was coming true all over again, as little went right for River in losses to Kecoughtan and Lake Taylor.

Then, on Sept. 20, the Warriors started to turn things around, massacring Churchland 40-7. Still, the district didn’t blink; the team hadn’t proven itself. Perhaps Lakeland would shut them down, as it had in the past two seasons.

Not quite. The Warriors charged to a 28-12 victory over their fellow Suffolkians, one that was far more decisive than the final score indicated. But the Warriors still weren’t on the map. At least, not until the next week, when they destroyed Oscar Smith 59-0, the school’s biggest victory since entering Triple A ball in 1997, and second biggest of all time (the 1992 team defeated Bruton 62-0).

Who were these guys? Deep Creek and Great Bridge (both of whom had easily handled River the season before) found out over the next few weeks, losing by a combined score of 69-21 (it was the first-ever defeat of Creek by a Suffolk team).

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. For the Warriors, that came on Oct. 25, when they fell to Western Branch.

But unlike the squads of the previous two years, the team didn’t let a loss get them down, bouncing back to squash Hickory and Indian River for a solid second place in the district. Sometimes dreams can come true, kids. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different.

Will the third time be a charm for me? We’ll find out in 12 months!