Persistence pays off for CHS seniors

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR CORRESPONDENT

   This year's Cloudland basketball season could be summed up with the words of Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day: "I've been waiting a long time for this moment to come, I'm destined for anything at all."
   For this year's senior class, they have been waiting for four years for their chance to shine on the hardwood, they have gotten their chance and so far made the best of it.
   Many basketball teams have a star player or two that they can look up to for the big play, the complete opposite can be said of this year's Cloudland Highlander basketball team.
   This year's seniors have proven themselves as being one of the best teams in over two decades at Cloudland. But four of the six gentlemen -- Rick Whitehead, Brandon Odom, Caleb Denton and Bryan Cooke -- have been there from the bottom to the top.
   "I have been on some teams that had talent and didn't want it," said Whitehead. "And I've played for teams that wanted it and couldn't put it together. The one thing that sets our team apart this year is that we have skills, togetherness, and aggressiveness."
   Said Odom: "For the past four years we have gotten better and better. A lot of us played with coach (Randy) Birchfield from the time we were in 7th grade until this year. He and Ned (Smith) both have made improvements in basketball here."
   Added Denton: "The practices have basically been the same. But Ned has picked it up and our intensity has picked up in our game."
   This year's team has been impressive thus far, each of the players credit each other as a team and for picking up their level.
   "This is the first year in a long time that everyone is talented," said Denton. "We have four big guys, Mark (Byrd) is an excellent guard, we are just good all around."
   Said Cooke: "We have come a long way this year. We have proven a lot to ourselves and to others. We all get along, that's one thing that helps us out a lot."
   "We have a good combination," said Cloudland coach Ned Smith. "We have great leadership, and our posts and guards can handle the ball and pressure well. Each of these seniors are competitors and they want to win."
   Said Odom: "I think that we are one of the most athletic classes to come through here. We don't have that many, but we have the talent on the floor. From football to even girl's ball we have been a good group."
   This is the first team that Cloudland has had to post some excellent winning numbers since the late '70s and early '80s, and the first team to compete for a conference crown since way back when.
   "It means the world to you in your senior year," said Whitehead. "It would be the greatest thing in the world."
   Cloudland has posted some big wins this season, as well has three tough losses. The rest of the season will be decided on which team will show up on each given night. When everyone comes out to play, the team is tough.
   "We have had some ups and downs with that," said Cooke. "We just hope to be our best from here on out."
   Many people have been asking the question: Who is Ned Smith? For some of the seniors he is a great coach with the will to make the best happen.
   "We have our differences at times," said Whitehead. "But we get along and he helps make the best happen for our team."
   "He's done great," said Odom. "He's very disciplined, he helped us all get in shape and he took control. We are a better team."
   This Friday night, the Cloudland Highlanders travel to Unaka for a big conference showdown. The group of seniors know it's going to be a rough test, also considering that nobody gives them a chance to win.
   A win would be the first time a Cloudland team has defeated Unaka since the 1992-93 season, these boys think it's about time that changes.
   "Everybody is excited about it," said Denton. "This week our practice has been so intense. It's the first time this team has had a chance to beat Unaka in years, we just want to be prepared because this was one of our pre-season goals, to beat Unaka."
   Cooke said: "I think it's going to be exciting. We definitely want to come away with a victory. We're working hard and we are determined to do it."
   "In a way I look at this as another game," said Whitehead. "In a way there are no words to say what it feels to play a team that has beat you forever. I can honestly say that a win over them would be my state championship."
   Perhaps the most difficult test for the 'Landers this Friday will be playing in Snavely Gym, where a packed house is expected.
   "Unaka has a great team, they always have," said Odom. "Their gym is one of the hardest places to play. The crowd takes so much out of you mentally and physically. I think we have what it takes to pull it off."
   A lot of talk in the area has been focused on similar scores between the teams, and about who can outdo the other. Smith doesn't think that should be the case.
   "Scores with other teams do not mean a thing," said Smith. "The game all comes down to who you have matched up with the other guy. All wins are big in such a small conference."
   For the guys at Cloudland, it has been proven before that dreams do come true. This Friday night, a big dream could go a long way.