I’ve been covering Pulaski County High School athletic events to some degree ever since the school opened its doors 45 years ago. Tuesday evening in Galax where the Cougar girls basketball team came from down 16-2 in the first quarter to win in the Class 4 state semifinal game was one of the enjoyable events of all those years.
The 63-58 victory over Carroll County put the Lady Cougars in the state title game Thursday against Lake Taylor. The 21-8 Cougars will be heavy underdogs, but that’s okay. I have no doubt this young girls basketball team will show up with a lot of fight.
If you’re not going to fold your tent after a 16-2 negative start, you simply aren’t going to quit. The competitive spirit of this team is the most enjoyable aspect of Brad Sutphin’s and Mike Ander’s program.
And the team is so young, about half of it 14-year old freshmen. And to stare defeat in the eye and ignore it is rare indeed for a young bunch like this. Freshman Ally Fleenor did not miss a shot in the second half and her torrid play in the third quarter got her team not just back in the game, but in front after a 21-9 effort. Fleenor scored 21 points for the game, did not miss a shot in the second half, and pulled down 12 rebounds. When the team had to have somebody lift it up, Fleenor did the heavy lifting.
Then down the stretch junior Maddie Ratcliffe toes the line. The free throw line. In the clutch it takes guts to hit 10 straight free throws and 11 of 12 in a state semifinal game. But that’s exactly what she did. She displayed an impressive floor game and finished with a team high 27 points.
And now there is one final contest for this youthful 22-8 team. We all certainly hope they win the state, but should it not happen it’s been a superb season, one that was not expected. Not just the starting lineup, but the top seven players on the team return next season and four of them for three more years. The Pulaski County girls basketball program is now something that a lot of folks will not enjoy having to deal with in the immediate future.
And likely a long forgotten fact now resurfaces. I haven’t forgotten because I enjoyed it so much. Many will be surprised to learn that this is the third state championship game the Cougar girls program will have played Thursday.
In fact, it is the second most successful athletic program in school history. Pulaski County football has played in three state championship games and won the only title in school history in 1992 as a member of Group AAA, Division 6 and that game was played in Richmond too.
No other program at PCHS can match the level of success of girls basketball. Three times the Cougar girls have played in a state semifinal and three times they have won. Maybe that next win is not far away. But a look back in time is nice and pleasant memories resurface.
It was 1991. The tournament was in Williamsburg at William & Mary. The Lady Cougars at 23-6 were facing the number one ranked team in the state, Phoebus, a team that was 29-0, and had the east coast’s top player in La-Keshia Frett, a 6-3 talent that could play the point, wing, or post. Whatever you needed her to do. She would end up playing in college for Georgia. She was also averaging 29 points a game. The Lady Cougars held Frett to 14, 15 below her average. Pulaski Co. had worked to a 31-24 lead late in the third, but the fourth quarter was torrid. It was tied at 42 when PCHS point guard Terri Garland tried to drive the lane with just four seconds left. She missed, but Cindy Martin grabbed the rebound, and hit the winning shot for a 44-42 victory and at the time the biggest moment by far in Lady Cougar basketball history.
Cindy Martin is now Cindy Southern and she is a prominent dentist in downtown Pulaski. She scored 10 points that day with the last two obviously being the biggest. Cindy was also the leading rebounder on the team and second leading scorer. The girls lost in the final a day later to an good Madison team and a great 19-point effort by Becky Smith came up short.
The following year Pulaski County was 26-3 and this time Phoebus was 29-0 again and they met in the state final at U-Hall in Charlottesville at UVa. Once again Frett was touted as one of the finest players in the nation, and her team had a record of 58-1 over two years and that loss was to PCHS in the semi the year before. Once again it was a titanic struggle, a physical defensive game, and Frett was shutdown again, and with six seconds left one more time Garland drove the paint. She got her shot up on the rim and it rolled off, and Phoebus won by the scantest of margins, 39-38. Two titanic struggles on the hardwood, and two of my more enjoyable memories over all these years.
Regardless of the outcome Thursday, and it will be heartbreak if the Lady Cougars do not win as it should be, but this team was not supposed to be playing in the state championship game. This is a storybook season, just like the ones in 1991 and 1992. It is something very substantial to build on. Just think, one point is all that prevented Pulaski County from winning two state championships in 1992. Maybe one day the Cougars will double up. Regardless of what happens in Richmond, this was a great job and something to be very proud of. It’s been 27 years since girls basketball has been relevant for the most part at PCHS. Now it is again. It’s a nice feeling, and it will one day be a nice piece of history.
By DAN CALLAHAN, The Patriot