With 35 seconds left in Saturday’s N.C. 4A state championship game, Olympic High boys basketball coach Ty Baumgardner knelt down on one knee and held his chin in his hands. His team was this close to a state championship, to winning the first one in the school’s 47-year history.
After Olympic beat Raleigh Broughton 56-53 to get it, Baumgardner was overcome with emotion. The PA announcer called each of his players, one by one, and you could see Baumgardner well up with emotion as they all got a medal and a hug and an ovation. But when everyone else was done and Baumgardner’s name was called, he let all those pent-up feelings out, pointing with both hands toward the large Olympic crowd behind his bench.
He kept pointing and pumping his arms and pointing some more, almost like he was trying to reach out and hug the fans, one by one. He kept going until his team came and enveloped him with a group hug so hard and heartfelt that it swept Baumgardner off his feet and caused his back to arch backward. Baumgardner’s grin could have filled a thousand photographs.
I’ve seen a lot of coaches win state championships, but I can’t remember many of them whom it seemed to mean more to than Olympic’s head coach.
And when Baumgardner got to the postgame media interview room, his eyes were already wet as he talked about the team Olympic had just beaten.
“They verified exactly what I told my team (Friday) before we ended our last practice,” Baumgardner said. “I told them this was going to be the best team, emphasis on team, that we played all year. They showed it. It was a shame somebody had to lose a game like that.”
Third time the charm
Then Baumgardner was asked to talk about his team and this journey to history. All the emotion came right back. Olympic had lost in the first round of the regional playoffs over the past two seasons, its season ending two games short of the state finals. With the kind of success and national rankings Olympic has enjoyed recently, those playoff failures had to hurt. And Baumgardner had his best team this season. He knew it. He put everything he had into making sure his team finally broke though.
Asked to describe it, his eyes got wet, again, his voice cracked, and then he said this:
“If there’s anybody on this team besides these exact 12 players, we’re not here, period. It’s the most special group I’ve ever been around, and I love every one of them like they’re my son. Every time we break the huddle, we break with the word ‘Family,’ and this has been a true family experience, from beginning to end.”
• I often get asked which state championships are better, the private or public schools’? I enjoy them both. They are both my favorite sporting events on the high school sports calendar. The private school championships should always be in Charlotte because they come off there better than anywhere else, but there’s just something extra special to the public school finals, at the Smith Center and Reynolds Coliseum. They’re just, well, bigger.
I’d like to see the private and public schools use Charlotte’s Halton Arena, however. That place is perfect for the finals.
• Not an original thought from me, but I really wish the NCHSAA would explore using Charlotte or Winston or even Greensboro as a state finals site for multiple sports. Always having big team sport state championships in the Raleigh/Durham area too often creates home field advantages for the eastern representative. It’s a heckuva lot easier, for example, for Chapel Hill fans to drive to N.C. State to watch Harding-Chapel Hill girls in the 3A final, than Rams fans from Charlotte. Ditto for 4A boys, when it seemed like Raleigh Broughton’s entire student body came down for the 4A final with Olympic, whose fans had a much longer commute.
• A Cuthbertson player tore off his jersey and threw it on the floor and tried to walk to the locker room after a close loss to Kinston in the 2A finals Saturday. Luckily, N.C. High School Athletic Association assistant commissioner Carolyn Shannonhouse stopped him and gently escorted him back to his team. Coach Mike Helms had picked up the jersey, and the player put it back on.
The losing hurts, I know, but I hope everyone learned a lesson in sportsmanship.
• Olympic’s Baumgardner thinks Appalachian State coach Jason Capel is getting a steal in Broughton’s Devonte’ Graham, a 6-foot-1 senior. Baumgardner said he’s the best point guard Olympic has faced all year. Graham had 23 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals against Olympic and he’s one of the best point guards I’ve seen, too, along with Cuthbertson’s Shelton Mitchell, a Wake Forest recruit; United Faith’s Alec Wintering, a Portland recruit; Raleigh Word of God point guard Josh Newkirk, a Pitt recruit; and High Point Wesleyan Christian’s JaQuel Richmond.