Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Wild year for multisport champs

RADFORD - He'd just brought his weary arm over his head for the final time Saturday and blown an 84-mph fastball - swiftest by either team all day - past the last Holston batter.

He'd pitched eight innings over two days, all under pressure. He'd taken three teams as far as they could be taken. He'd added a baseball championship to the basketball crown, which had followed his football team's run to the state title game.

And Austin Pack still desired to do more.

"I wish I could have played tennis," Pack said on the Radford University field, after his Galax team edged Holston 9-8 to win the Group A Division 1 baseball title. "I would play golf if I could. I just love playing sports, getting out there and competing. That's what I like to do. My knees are shot up. My body's achin'."

He smiled.

"And I love it," he said.

Galax has a lot of kids like Pack. Maybe they're not quite the impact player he is - not everyone can be the star quarterback, the star point guard AND the star pitcher - but they're athletic. They're versatile. They compete.

They win.

The nine seniors on this Galax team combined to capture 29 state championships in a variety of sports. Two players - shortstop Eddie Hanks and third baseman John Alouf - combined for 12 titles in golf, basketball and now baseball.

"Never seen anything like it," Galax principal Jody Ray said of all the athletic success. "Ever.

"We all walk the halls with our heads high, I can say that."

Committing a crime in Galax must have been easier than ever this year. Every time a team bus left for a state title game, it did so with a police escort. That started this fall, when the Pack-led Maroon Tide traveled to the football championship game against Clintwood - a contest that came down to the final play before Galax fell just short.

It continued in the winter, when the basketball team won its second straight championship under coach Verl Brown (who was here leading cheers Saturday). And when the baseball team won a dramatic game Friday to set up this opportunity, Galax became just the second school in any classification to make the state title game in all three of the major "ball" sports in the same school year, joining Madison County in 1973-74.

"This is the most unlikely one of the three," Alouf said. "Basketball we knew we had a skilled bunch. Baseball, we never really expected anything out of us. We never seemed to have winning records or showed it on the field when playing against rivals. So it was unexpected, but we've definitely worked hard enough to get it."

A team that started 1-6 and lost in the semifinals of its district tournament found some magic in these playoffs. Guys who've known success in other sports, like Dante Ravenell (football), Travis Cockerham (golf), Travis Garvey (basketball), Trevor Quesenberry (basketball) and Bryant Cox (football), brought their big-moment experience to the diamond and pulled out close game after close game.

"It's just been a tremendous blessing for our school, our community," said Jeff Combs, the right-hand man of Galax athletic director Yerrick Stoneman, who's been on military duty since April. "It's unheard of, really. The entire coaching staff, all the way through in every sport, works so well together. Everybody knows we're a small-school division, and we share athletes."

They are athletes who've known each other since they were tots, playing AAU basketball and little league football. Pack had the same middle infield working behind him Saturday that he did when he was 12, playing in all-star tournaments.

"I wouldn't play with anybody else but these guys right here beside me," Ravenell said.

With divisional play, making a state title game isn't as hard as it used to be. But it's still hard. And Alouf, who hoisted trophies in golf, hoops and now baseball in one scholastic year, summed up the thoughts of many wearing maroon here on Saturday.

"It's been a great ride," he said. "I'll never forget this year."

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