The newest member of the Ring of Honor for the Surry County Sports Hall of Fame is the 2001-02 Mount Airy basketball team.
The Granite Bears were underdogs from start to finish, but capped off a remarkable 31-1 season with the 1A state title.
Going into the season, the Bears were missing five of their top six players off a Northwest Conference championship team, including star Richard Joyce, who transferred to Oak Hill Academy and later played for Wake Forest University.
The team had some juniors coming up from the JV team who had promise, but no varsity experience.
What most people didn’t know was just how many games those young men had played together.
Joe Denney coached AAU ball with Mount Airy Hall of Fame coach James Hayes in the 1990s. His son Ryan played with the same group of boys from about the fourth or fifth grade right up through graduation.
Joe said Ryan and his best friend Sammy Gentry probably played somewhere between 250 and 300 games together over those years. Three of their teammates also played on those teams.
That group of boys was probably the tightest squad that he has ever been around, Joe said.
They were a good group of kids, who happened to also play ball, the father said. “They went to church on Sunday. And the community just gelled around them.”
When the boys were in grade school in 1995, the AAU team traveled to Florida and won a national championship.
Sammy Gentry was about 6-foot-2 and “the toughest kid you ever saw,” said Joe Denney. He was a spark plug.
At 6-foot-5, Ryan Denney was the tallest player on the team, but Sammy manned the middle and guarded the basket. That left Ryan free to be the team’s leading rebounder and scorer.
Guard Justin Brim also had great scoring ability and was the MVP of the title game.
Senior Bryan Hayes, son of Coach Hayes, was the perfect point guard for this team, said Joe. He was such a tough-minded kid, running the offense and playing tough defense.
Senior Levi Goins had the potential to put up a lot of points, said Joe, but didn’t have a problem passing up shots to get Justin and Ryan better looks.
“Every parent thinks his son is the next Michael Jordan,” said Joe, but these players didn’t have big egos. Every one had a job to do and contributed.
That mentality might be why both Bryan and Levi have become head coaches themselves.
Bryan coaches down at the eastern coast, while Levi is about to start his first season as the Granite Bears new coach, taking over for Kevin Spainhour who took an administrative position at West Stokes.
Jerrald Mitchell, who later died in a motorcycle accident, came off the bench, along with Matthew Jordan and Matthew Blood at the guard positions.
This was a very strong defensive team, said father Sam Gentry. He said he doesn’t think a team reached 60 points on the Bears all season.
Despite having just one loss all season, the Bears were still considered the underdogs for the last three games of the playoffs, Sam noted.
The West regional final came against Thomasville, which had won the state title in 1998 and 2000. Then after the Bears’ title in 2002, Thomasville added three more titles in 2003, 2005 and 2007.
Then Justin scored 25 of the Bears’ 47 points in a close three-point win to advance to the title game.
The team from the East was Plymouth, which was obviously more athletic just from watching the pregame warmup drills.
“We can practice all we want, but we can’t duplicate their athleticism,” Coach Kemp Phillips told The News after the game.
Still, Justin came out firing again to give the Bears a 19-14 lead after the first quarter.
“When Brim is hot, you might as well turn the lights out,” said Bryan.
Justin would finish with 24 points (including 4-10 from deep) and earn the MVP honors.
Despite a Plymouth defense determined to stop him, Ryan finished with 15 points and a game-high 10 rebounds as the Bears won the battle on the glass.
“To a man, they can outjump us, and for us to outrebound them by 10 is a credit to our kids,” Phillips said afterward.
The Bears won the game 63-58.
“I told the guys a few weeks ago that one special team gets to go out with a win, and that team is going to be us this year,” Bryan said after the victory. “It’s great to know that even though we will never play another game here, Levi, Buzz (Wilmoth) and me and all the other seniors are going out on top.”
And the little engine that could now takes its place in the Ring of Honor.
Reach Jeff Linville at email@example.com or at 719-1920.