Why I'm proud of my alma mater

Jeff Birchfield • May 2, 2018 at 6:48 PM

My first two personal columns have been about my journey to West Palm Beach and the decision to move there and work with the International Hot Rod Association before my return to the Tri-Cities.

With recent news, I’m going to take a different route with this column before I revisit that journey.

Happy Valley is a special place to me. I went to school all 12 years there, and some of the people I call my closest friends are either classmates or other alumni.

It was truly a different time, and we often laugh about the crazy jokes we pulled like when a good friend of mine drew a picture of the high school principal to resemble pop singer Boy George and taped it outside the office door.

We were hiding around the corner waiting for his reaction, which he didn’t seem to find as humorous as we did. The teachers, coaches, administrators and other staff like the janitors and cafeteria workers were people I still remember fondly. 

Back to the present. The high school’s athletic program has been hit with several challenges lately, some on the courts or fields and others away from it.

Football coach Jason Jarrett and his wife, Audrey, had been staying with in-laws while they were building a new house. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the house that the Duncan family had called home for 38 years, losing most of the family’s possessions.

Through the loss, the Happy Valley community rallied through fundraisers named #WarriorStrong. Coach Jarrett and I recently talked about the many blessings of the community coming together.

While the money raised and goods contributed can’t replace the memories and other treasured keepsakes, Jarrett said his family has more clothing than before the fire and he is so grateful for all the support.

Jarrett is an outstanding football coach and his record of 25-11 over three seasons speaks for itself. More than that, I see him as a first-class individual, one of the best people you will ever deal with in my profession.

One thing I often notice beyond the wins and losses is the interaction with players and coaches. You see the genuine affection from Jarrett’s players and his family.

His in-laws are special folks as well.

I was honored to be in Sunday School with his sister-in-law, Amanda, and her husband, Brooks, for a number of years at Sinking Creek Baptist Church.

Brooks is the son of a pastor in North Carolina and as some of you may have read, once served as a nurse for the late Billy Graham. Their families remain very close, and here’s continued best wishes as they move forward.

The next couple of challenges are with the proud basketball program.

Some may have forgotten, but Happy Valley was the first school in this area to win two state championships in boys’ basketball under legendary coaches John Treadway and Charlie Bayless.

The Warriors also finished state runner-up in 1941 when Bayless was a player and have made it to the final four on four separate occasions. The girls also reached the state championship game in 1989 under Mike Rader, who coincidentally was my freshman basketball coach.

Recently, both programs saw head coaches resign to spend more time with their families and devote more time to interests outside of basketball.

For me, these moves were personal. The former girls’ coach, Larry Abel Jr., has been a friend for well over 30 years. He was an old teammate of mine and his dad, Larry, and uncle, Terry, coached us in youth basketball.

Chuck Babb, the boys’ coach, played ball with my brother, Marvin.

The school named their replacements with guys I believe will be solid hires. Jeremy Maddox served as an assistant to both Bayless and Babb.

One of the biggest wins late in Bayless’ 62-year coaching career, a 63-60 win over rival Unicoi County in Erwin to end the Blue Devils’ Watauga Conference record 49-game win streak, was credited in large part to Maddox’s film study in breaking down the Blue Devils.

That night with a sold-out crowd and an electric atmosphere in Erwin, Happy Valley held Unicoi star Logan Lyle, who went on to play at King College and later professionally in Australia, to just eight points.

Beyond the court, Maddox has been one of the biggest promoters of the Bayless Golf Tournament, which is the major fundraiser for the Charlie and Jane Bayless Scholarship Fund, which helps Happy Valley graduates attend college.  

The new girls coach is Thomas Gouge, who came from a Daniel Boone program that made the Class AAA state tournament this season. Three of Boone’s losses this season came to Riverdale and Bradley Central, the top two teams in the state.

More than just sports, I’ve commented that you feel a similar atmosphere with Boone and Happy Valley, and it’s a big reason I believe Gouge will be a good fit on Warrior Hill.

Last Saturday, the baseball team won 10-6 over Unaka at Cannon-Gouge Field, which is named for J.D. Cannon and Brad Gouge, two former Happy Valley baseball players who lost their lives in a traffic accident at a far-too- early age.

The victory was much more significant than the Warriors beating a county rival, as the game raised $1,571 for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

Head coach Brad Hill and his assistant, Todd Caldwell, shaved their heads for the occasion. Another coach, Jordan Taylor, is bald, so he shaved his beard. The cause is personal for Hill, whose son, Kael, is a cancer survivor and St. Jude’s patient.

It was another example of the school pulling together and what continues to make Happy Valley and that community such a special place to me.

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