Lower Richland: A gem of a gym

ainelson@thestate.comFebruary 19, 2012 

  • Diamond Mine Built in: 1982 Capacity: 2,100 Famous for: Lower Richland vs. Eau Claire rivalry games, home of Boys Class 4A champions 1983, 1987, 1988, 1999, Girls class 4A state champions 1994, 1997, 2006-08, Class 3A champions 2009. Played there: McDonald’s All-American Morgan Stroman (Miami), NBA player Stanley Roberts (LSU), NBA player JoJo English (USC), Tennessee State’s MJ Rhett, McDonald’s All-American Rolando Howell,

ENTERING LOWER RICHLAND’S basketball arena is like stepping into a museum of basketball greatness.

Walking past the poster-sized team photos and cases of tournament and state championship trophies, it becomes clear that big things happen in this gym.

“You’re just almost awestruck with the history and the tradition of the program when you walk in,” LR boys coach Ezekiel Washington said.

It’s a legacy that players become a part of when they take the court at Lower Richland — affectionately termed the Diamond Mine. And one that even opponents can sense when they take the court.

“I don’t have to say anything about it,” said Lower Richland alumnus Kevin Scott, the announcer for Diamond Hornets home games for the past three years.

“When they come in, they know the history. You catch them looking around, looking at the banners. You can see them amazed,” Scott said.

“It’s always been a really unique place to be,” he said.

Jim Childers joined Lower Richland basketball as coach the year before the Diamond Mine opened.

“There were some very good teams there before me and some very good teams after I left,” said Childers, who led the Diamond Hornets boys to Class 4A titles in 1983, ’87 and ’88. “It has always been a strong program.”

“All the gyms, even the old gyms, were packed for basketball but when we got the new gym, it allowed us to have a bigger crowd, and that was important,” he said.

The “new” gym, with its upper-level bleachers wrapping around three sides of the court, made the Diamond Hornets the envy of programs in the area, girls basketball coach Debbie Stroman said.

“Everybody wants that arena feeling and we were the first to get it,” Stroman said. “We have the original high school basketball arena here.”

“Nothing’s changed here but the paint,” she said.

Of course, there have been some significant additions to the Diamond Mine: a collection of state championship banners hanging from the wall and rafters. Ten state championship teams — four boys and six girls — have called this gym home since it opened in 1982.

Today, Lower Richland players run through drills on the same hardwood that Stanley Roberts pounded when the Diamond Hornets were turning Hopkins into Title Town in 1987 and 1988.

“When you walk in that gym, you’ve got to think about the JoJo Englishes, the Stanley Roberts, all those guys that played on that court,” Washington said. “We try to remind our guys about that history.”

It’s not lost on senior point guard Edward Stephens.

“You gotta have a certain level of play when you’re in there. It’s an expectation that comes with the history,” Stephens said.

More than the structure, it is the fervent support of Lower Richland fans — loud, proud and schooled in the game — who turn the Diamond Mine into a pressure cooker.

“It feels like wherever you look, the fans are everywhere. It’s almost like surround sound,” Washington said.

There is nothing small or quiet about Lower Richland basketball. The fans are all about big confidence and big voices. And on the court, they expect big play.

“They’ll be tough on you,” Stephens said. “They’re always talking. That first row, they always have a lot to say.”

While the Diamond Hornets hold up well against the fans’ pressure, the crowd’s jibes and jeers can take opponents heads out of the game.

“It’s a big help for us, a big advantage,” Stephens said.

Washington knows how the Lower Richland fans can mess with your head.

“I came here with the Fairfield (Central) boys, when I was first getting started, and walking in that gym was like stepping into darkness,” Washington said.

As the Class 3A playoffs continue, the Diamond Hornets look forward to celebrating more big wins, and making their addition to the catalogs of Lower Richland basketball history.

Reach Nelson at (803) 771-8419

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