Special memories of the past few years

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com
I have been working part-time for as a sportswriter for over a decade now. Since 1996, I've been at the STAR in some capacity.
The first couple of years I stuck totally with auto racing, mainly doing feature articles on NASCAR personalities with occasional stories about local racers.
Racing is still my favorite sport and always will be. If I was a sportswriter in Ancient Rome, I could see myself at the chariot races. Today, I love the smell of racing fuel and tire smoke. It's as a sweet fragrance to my nose as any perfume. However much I enjoy it, racing is just a small part of what my job as a sportswriter entails.
The primary focus is high school athletics and stories about our local athletes. Thinking about that I started to reflect on how each of the schools in our local coverage area has been special.
Six high schools are in the Carter-Johnson County area. I have to say during my tenure I've been very lucky in that every coach at each of these schools I've dealt with has been terrific. That goes for the junior high coaches as well. I feel these two counties are blessed to have such quality people teaching their youth.
What I wanted to do over the next several paragraphs was to pass on some of the wonderful memories I have about each of our schools starting with:
CLOUDLAND -- I know there are some in the county who feel he gets too much publicity, but in my honest opinion Mark Byrd is the best all-around high school athlete I've seen. Great in football, basketball, baseball, he is truly amazing to watch.
Three years ago there was a football game at West Greene I covered when Byrd was a freshman. He takes a punt around the 40-yard line and simply speeds by everyone else on the field to score an uncontested touchdown. He didn't bother to wait on the blockers. He raced on past the defenders and by the time he reached the end zone no one was within 10 yards of him.
There is no ego with Byrd, something learned well from his head coach Mike Lunsford. The first time I was to interview Lunsford, he had already amassed a reputation as a top coach. I didn't know what to expect. Would he be a big jerk like the movies always portray successful high school football coaches?
Not a chance. I found Lunsford to be one of the most likable people you would ever want to meet. The first time I met him he was joking and cutting-up and he's been that way ever since. I remember conducting an interview with him for SPORTS TALK a couple of years ago and his answers were sensational.
I truly feel honored I was able to cover a few games Lunsford coached with the players who were seniors on this year's Cloudland football team.
HAMPTON -- One word best defines to me what Hampton high school athletics is all about -- effort. I've covered games where Hampton has won and games where the Bulldogs have lost badly, but I've never seen a Hampton team give up.
The best effort I've seen from any team in any sport came from a Hampton basketball team. They played at Avery County one night, facing a Viking team that featured talented a pair of 6-6 and 6-9 post players.
If you only saw the score, you might think Hampton gave them a good game, but Avery County did what everyone expected in the end and won the game. No matter what the scoreboard read, there was no way I could ever classify this as a losing effort for the 'Dogs. Athletically they had no business being in the game, sheer guts and determination almost carried them to the victory.
I remember interviewing their center Shane Simerly and their head coach Jerry White after the game. Simerly had battled those post players inside all night. Drenched in sweat, he had left everything he had out on the court. Coach White looked completely exhausted as well. It was like he had been playing himself.
This was some of the best sports had to offer. The images from that night of the valiant effort that team gave is something I think will stick with me the rest of my life.
UNAKA -- Talk about special memories and I remember the first high school football game I ever covered was on Stoney Creek. Unaka played host to West Greene in what turned out to be a fantastic ballgame.
Years later, I can still recall it was a cool, crisp night. I still can hear in my mind the voice of public address announcer Doug Buckles and I was genuinely impressed by the great job he did.
I looked back at the article I wrote about that game recently and I have to admit something. The game was much, much better than my writing. It still was a terrific introduction to covering high school football games and for that I'm grateful.
Another special event at Unaka was covering a girls, softball district championship game. No wonder Ronnie Hicks is such a legend in coaching circles. His team was so well prepared and they played flawlessly in a win over Hampton.
It would be an injustice if I didn't mention the job Donald Ensor and Kenneth Chambers do with their basketball teams and the incredible fan support on Stoney Creek. I feel with the atmosphere and the closeness of the crowd, Snavely Gym provides the best home court advantage of any school in the county.
JOHNSON COUNTY -- My first true "beat" for a football season was the Longhorns in 2000. What a fun season that turned out to be. Johnson County had an excellent team with Chris Gambill at quarterback, Chris Dunn at tailback and big "Tank" Dugger on the line.
From the first game, a 6-0 win at Sullivan East to a 14-0 playoff loss at Austin-East, I enjoyed every single moment. If watching the team wasn't reward enough, I also learned about the incredible hospitality of the folks in Mountain City.
They treated me wonderfully. It is still one of my favorite places to go cover football and basketball games with some of the nicest people anywhere.
Another reporter Matt Hill actually took the beat the year after I had it and elevated it to higher level. Matt's great job led to him being named sports editor of The Tomahawk last year.
One more 'Horns memory was seeing Gambill as a pitcher put together an 18-strikeout performance in a baseball game I covered. By the end of the game, Gambill had the opposing hitters swinging at balls in the dirt as well as whizzing fastballs past them.
ELIZABETHTON -- Let me start off by saying there is nothing in Carter County like covering football at Brown-Childress Stadium. It's more than just a game, it's an event.
My first taste of covering Cyclone football was a conference championship game between Elizabethton and Sullivan Central. The atmosphere was absolutely electric. As a reporter my goal is to be unbiased, but it certainly made my job better getting to see Elizabethton clinch such an important victory.
One play that stands out from that game was seeing their quarterback Andy Curtis make one of the best passes I've ever seen a high school player complete for a 63-yard touchdown.
I was still focused on the racing coverage when the Witten brothers were playing, but I do feel fortunate to have seen Vince Redd play. He certainly looks like another EHS standout with the potential to make it to the professional level. He was also a pleasure to watch on the basketball floor as is his younger sister Valneesha these days.
Another special player has to be Rikki Baughman. In the three Lady Cyclone games I've covered before tonight, No. 23 is averaging 27.7 points per game. A recent outing at Hampton where she took command of the game was the best performance I've seen from any player, male or female, this season.
Of all the sports at EHS, the tightest bond I've formed is with the swim team. It's been great watching coach Jonell Johnson work with the team and swimming has become one of my favorite sports to report about. My first year covering the swim team, I saw both boys and girls leading school record holders in Jeremy Lindauer and Ashley Pierce.
HAPPY VALLEY -- As many of you know, this is my old school and I will be the first to admit, win or lose, every HV football and basketball game is a treat.
With that being said, the goal is to be unbiased when covering the Warriors against another team in our coverage area. One night, someone from one of the other schools commented to me, 'You all have a good team this year.'
Let me say sure it's nice to see a team you cover all the time do well, but I do not coach Happy Valley, I do not play for the team and I do not cheer for the team.
Now with that out of the way, there are a ton of special memories from Warrior games. This past football season alone, I got to witness the 2003 team beat all three big rivals, Unicoi County, Elizabethton and Hampton in the same year, accomplishing something that had never been done before in school history.
People ask me sometimes, "If I had to choose only one ballgame a year to cover, what would it be?" I answer that immediately Happy Valley at Unicoi County in basketball. There is nothing else like it. I would rate it as the most exciting atmosphere for any high school sporting event. Two weeks ago, I got to cover one of these games and it was an absolute delight.
Certainly, one of the best parts about covering HV is running into my old friends, classmates and teachers and seeing how their lives have changed. My old freshman basketball coach, Mike Rader, is now the school principal, and three people I graduated with actually had kids playing on this year's football team.
It's also been great forming new friendships and getting to know some of the young people who play for the current Warrior teams and the other teams around the area.
In concluding, I want to thank each of the local schools, coaches and athletes for giving me all these and numerous other special memories and for making this job as a STAR sportswriter very enjoyable.