Nice guys can finish last

It ‘s always fun to see a supremely talented basketball team make its run through the postseason.

Gar-Field head coach Andy Gray had one of those teams two years ago. Led by eight seniors, they went all the way to the state final and led in the fourth quarter before losing to Salem-Virginia Beach 64-57. That team had quickness, height and strength, deft ballhandlers and sure shooters.

Gray is the first to admit that this year ‘s Indians are not much like that team.

“There ‘s no comparison,” he said Thursday night after Gar-Field beat Potomac 71-51 to win its second Northwest Region championship in three seasons.

“That team would have beaten this team by … two,” he said smiling and obviously joking.

The 2003 Gar-Field squad starts three players shorter than six feet tall, only one of whom had more than a year of varsity experience before this season tipped off. That was junior Chris Vann, the regional player of the year, who watched all but a few minutes of the 2001 season from the varsity bench.

There was a point in January when Gray thought his squad might finish well below .500.

Consecutive losses to Woodbridge and Potomac dropped the Indians to 8-7, prompting Gray to call his mentor, Roanoke-area coaching legend Burrall Paye, for support.

“I said, ‘Coach, we ‘re small,” Gray recalled on Thursday night. “We ‘re not overly skilled. We ‘ve got one good player and a bunch of role players. Coach, I ‘m not sure we can win another game. ‘”

Gray went on to tell Paye that, despite their lack of physical attributes, this was the nicest group of players he ‘s ever coached.

“He said ‘Drew, I ‘ll tell you what, ‘” Gray recalled. ” ‘I ‘d rather win with a bunch of jerks who can play ball. ‘”

Since his group of underdogs won 10 of their next 11 games, including the Cardinal District and Northwest Region tournament championships, Gray figures he better place a return call to Paye, who retired after 500 wins at Powell Valley and William Fleming, and has authored 13 books on coaching basketball.

“I ‘ll have to call him back and tell him there ‘s an even better way,” Gray said of Paye ‘s ‘jerks ‘ comment. “You can do it with 14 good players.”

And that, said Gray, “has made this season wonderful.”

Gar-Field is certainly not the only place in the high school sports world where positivity reigns, or where team and family become synonymous. But after Thursday ‘s regional title game, when little brothers and sisters jumped in the customary post-championship ‘we ‘re number one ‘ pictures, one couldn ‘t help but smile at the scene.

Gray, who praises his assistants ‘ scouting efforts, makes his reserves feel appreciated and hugged his seniors when they came out of Thursday ‘s game, shows that success starts at the top.

“Coach Gray is a good coach,” said senior Gar-Field guard Chris Doss. “He takes a lot of time from his family to come out and coach us, and he ‘s very faithful to this program. That makes us want to play hard for him. We try to give that same dedication back to him when we ‘re on the court.”

Prince William county teams took the region ‘s pair of berths in the state tournament in both boys and girls basketball, a possibly unprecedented feat. Potomac ‘s boys and Woodbridge ‘s girls, state semifinalists last season, each lost important seniors, and have already returned to the final eight. Forest Park, a program in just its third year of existence, implemented a rigorous regimen based on the principles used by Duke ‘s highly successful men ‘s program. With just two seniors on the roster, the Bruins — with the help of some talented freshmen — made the jump from mediocre to great during an exciting 24-3 season.

All four teams take the court Saturday — Gar-Field and Woodbridge close to home and Forest Park and Potomac near Richmond — with the chance to advance to the Group AAA semifinals in Lynchburg, which begin Thursday at the Vines Center.

Before the regional final, it was easy to sing the Panthers ‘ praises. Potomac has been a part of six other state tournaments, and on all but one occasion, their first trip in 1990, they ‘ve won their opening game.

Whether Potomac can do the same on the road against 25-2 George Wythe, which eliminated the Panthers 73-53 last March, remains to be seen. Forest Park has a tough opponent in 27-0 Atlee, and Woodbridge plays Central Region runner-up Petersburg.

That Gar-Field, which enters the tournament with more losses (eight) than any boys quarterfinalist, doesn ‘t make them any better or more deserving than the Forest Park, Woodbridge or Potomac. But it does make their story rather compelling.

If Gar-Field ‘s season ends against Highland Springs on Saturday, the Indians will still have accomplished something great. Their play has won over a coach who once thought that having nice guys and a nice team might not be possible.

“[This team ‘s] heart meter is off the chart,” Gray said. “The 2001 team was bigger, they were more talented and more skilled. This team has gotten by listening and working hard. They ‘ve been more coachable.”

And in Gray ‘s view, really enjoyable.

Keith McMillan is a staff writer and columnist for the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him at (703) 878-8053 or via e-mail at [email protected]

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