Polk County greats step on court and back in time

Published 9:28 pm Sunday, July 31, 2016

(Photo by Andy Rhinehart)

(Photo by Andy Rhinehart)

You couldn’t throw a bounce pass Saturday night at Polk County High School without hitting a standout from the school’s basketball history.

Hayley Kropp checked Antoni Staley on the perimeter. Josh Twitty led a fast break with Kamron Kerr and Alec Philpott at his side. Kim Staley battled for a rebound. Otis Miller launched a long jumper. Derrick Twitty and Kevin Lynch made driving into the lane a challenge. Jamal Tanner drilled a 3-pointer from the wing.

Faces of Polk County’s basketball past, both recent and not quite as much, stepped back in time and onto the court on which they starred, coming together for a night of fun with a purpose in the first annual Coach Thomas Memorial Polk Alumni Game.

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The evening was very much about honoring the memory of Derek Thomas, Polk County’s all-time winningest coach, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 62 and meant so much to so many in attendance.

Thomas’ daughter, Brandie Mercado, served as one of the game’s head coaches and spoke before the game to the large crowd that filled nearly all of the home bleachers. Proceeds from the event, the brainchild of Staley, were designated to benefit Thomas’ granddaughter and Mercado’s daughter, Sophie. Thomas Troop, the team comprised of graduates from the pre-2000 era, wore jerseys featuring a caricature of the coach, and players could be heard swapping stories and sharing memories about their popular mentor, who came to Tryon High in 1987 and remained until leaving Polk County in 2001, winning 164 games as a Wolverine.

And there was a good bit of basketball played on the warm July evening as well. The game, matching those pre-2000 graduates with their more recent counterparts, proved competitive, tied midway through the fourth quarter before the Wolverine Alumni team, the “young guys,” pulled away for a 112-96 win. A Josh Twitty steal and dunk sparked an 16-2 Alumni run that gave the group a 105-91 lead with 1:54 left, that spurt proving the game’s deciding factor.

Recent graduate Jamal Tanner, who joined Twitty, Alec Philpott, Kerr and Stephen Staley on the court during that late rally, had a game-high 39 points for the Alumni team. Staley led Thomas Troop with 31 points and a smile that never left his face after the game.

“Better than I expected, a lot better,” Staley said of the event. “A lot of people worried about whether this might not work, people might not come and so on. But once we started playing, I had people coming up to me and saying, hey, I want to play next year.

“It means so much. I just appreciate everybody coming out. We had so much help, from the local restaurants providing food to Mr. Greene (superintendent Aaron Greene) and Mr. Schweitzer (athletic director Brandon Schweitzer) and Gingi (athletic department staff member Gingi Green). I don’t know how much we made, but I thought we had a great night.”

Each player wore a jersey bearing a nickname – Staley’s read “I Am Legend,” Miller’s read “Greatest,” Josh Twitty owned “Black Mamba” and Eric Russell’s simply read “The Beard” – and that sense of fun ran throughout the game, four quarters of 12 minutes each. But each of the participants didn’t become a standout without the drive to succeed, and that competitiveness showed as well.

The Alumni team raced to a big lead early behind Kerr – “he’s the MVP,” Staley said – but Staley, Lynch and Gavrick Carson led a second-quarter rally to bring the Troop back into the game. The margin remained close until Twitty’s dunk, and perhaps some tiring legs on the Troop side, helped sway the game in the Alumni’s favor.

The two teams combined to hit 30 3-pointers. Philpott had 22 points and Kerr had 20 for the Alumni while Carson had 21 points for the Troop.

“It felt great being back,” Twitty, the school’s career boys scoring leader, said. “There are a lot of memories, especially playing with Kam (Kerr). Getting the chance to play with him and some of these guys again was great.

“We had a couple of good years when I was here, and it means a lot to get to come back and see the community coming out for this game. Polk County’s a football town, but basketball can be good here, too, and I love seeing the crowd out here. I love it. Without Polk County basketball, I would not have gotten the places I’ve gotten to. I want to help put the pride back in Polk County basketball.”

Game participants included:

Otis Miller, William Rogers, Gavrick Carson, Jose Blanco, Louis DeRuvo, Kevin Lynch, Antoni Staley, Julie Sain Justice, Monique Booker, Derrick Twitty, Eric Russell

Stephen Staley, Kamron Kerr, Josh Twitty, Alec Philpott, Rachel Vining, Alyssa Montgomery, Hayley Kropp, Jamal Tanner, Kim Staley, Stacey Shields

– Submitted by PolkSports.com