Football might be king in South Carolina, but basketball is the prep sport of distinction in Columbia.
Basketball glory in the Midlands dwarfs football achievement in the modern era that began with integration of the public schools in the 1970-71 school year. Over the past 43 seasons, Midlands teams have won a combined 60 boys and girls High School League state championships, not to mention several independent school titles.
Based on recent data, a case can be made that basketball is entering a new golden era in the Midlands.
This past season produced six Midlands finalists, five Midlands champions and three undefeated teams. The Irmo boys (29-0), Dutch Fork girls (29-0) and Lower Richland girls (26-0) won state titles with perfect records. The Keenan girls and the Cardinal Newman boys (SCISA) also won state championships. Heathwood Hall’s girls finished second in the state.
It was the third time five Columbia-area teams won championships, matching the hauls in 2011 and 1994. The 2011 sweep included a first championship by the Heathwood Hall boys
“Columbia was at the center of basketball in the state in the 1980s and the early 1990s, and we’re seeing a resurgence,” said Irmo coach Tim Whipple, whose teams had roles in all three of the five-title seasons.
“There was a definitely drop-off in talent for a while, and good teams and good players started to come out of other areas of the state,” Whipple said. “Back in the day, there were more big-name boys players in the Midlands that we don’t have today, but we have some very good teams again. My 1994 team had a dominant player in B.J. McKie, and if he had a bad game we were in trouble. This year’s team had balance and depth and won games as a group.”
Former Richland Northeast coach and Chick-fil-A Classic founder Gary Fulmer agreed that Midlands’ boys basketball is making a comeback after some lean years.
“But I don’t think we’re close to the level of talent and the strength of some of the great teams we had in the 1980s and 1990s,” said Fulmer, who was an assistant coach at Lower Richland under Jim Childers during three championship seasons in the 1980s.
“There really is no comparison to the kind of players we had here back then — Stanley Roberts, Jermaine O’Neal, Jo Jo English, Tyrone Corbin, Xavier McDaniel, Joe Rhett and Barry Manning to name a few of the more famous ones. But there is no question that good basketball is back in the Midlands. The teams are just winning without future NBA or top-level Division I guys.”
On the other hand, girls basketball in the Midlands is at its peak with a run of great teams and high-level talent since the early 2000s.
“For years, girls’ basketball and girls’ sports in generally lagged behind the boys in terms of athleticism and skill,” said LR coach Debbie Stroman, who is 7-0 in state championships since taking over the job in 1992-93.
“We’re starting to catch up. In basketball, girls are preparing better in the summer — playing AAU, going to camp and some even work with personal trainers. The skill sets are better and the overall knowledge of the game is better. The girls game has grown into something much more than it was when I first started coaching.”
The 2013 champs were Stroman’s third undefeated team. The first was the 33-0 team that won the program’s first state title in 1994, followed by a 26-0 performance by the 2008 squad that featured Morgan Stroman, who is in her final season at Miami.
Dutch Fork won its second consecutive championship and will carry a 40-game winning streak into next season. The Silver Foxes will be without five-year starting center Alaina Coates, who has signed with South Carolina.
Keenan, which claimed its second championship since 2007, and Cardinal Newman, a champion for the first time since 1995, overcame tough starts to put it together when it mattered the most.
Is 2013 the high water mark of Midlands basketball glory?
“Going undefeated in any era is an accomplishment, and for three teams from the same area to do it is remarkable,” Whipple said. “I’m old and don’t remember things, but I can’t recall something like this happening before.”
In terms of team achievement, it’s a case-closed thing.