THOMASVILLE - On Saturday, June 10th there was a walk down memory lane. As you close your eyes, the sounds you hear in the E. Lawson Brown Gymnasium were like the hundreds of basketball practices played out in the Ledford High School Gymnasium. Brian Hege, Brett Speight, Matt Ridge, Matt Jacobs, Adam Craven, Jason Reich, Scott Dunbar, Ryan Christian and Jason Younts, these were the guys that played for the 1992 2A State Championship against Ayden-Grifton.
However, now it was 5-on-5 half court with the addition of Coach Greg McKenzie. While the sounds may have been similar, the level of play and results did not quite have the luster of that phenomenal season.
Don’t try and tell this competitive bunch they may have lost a few steps along the way because they are playing this Saturday to reignite the special bond that exists between former teammates.
Why now? Well not only is it the 25th anniversary of the special season, but their leader Coach Robert Kent was there to be honored as he retires from coaching and teaching.
If you were fortunate enough to have seen the legendary ’92 team in action you know how special a time it was for Davidson County High School Sports.
Many of the players shared the story of how Coach Kent, on the first day of practice after cuts, posted the date of the 2A State Championship Game in each of their lockers. Matt Ridge said, “It planted a seed of expectation in our minds that affected every meeting, practice and game we had.”
When Kent was asked about it, he said, “We played in the State Games at NC State the summer before the run to the state championship game. I don’t remember what round it was, but we played Ayden-Grifton and they beat us. While we were shaking hands, Adam Craven shook the coach’s hand and he said, 'I’ll see you in Chapel Hill next year' (referring to the 2A State Finals).”
Kent said, “I only did it twice in my career. The other time was when we won the state championship. As a coach you kind of know when you have a special group. My senior year in high school we had a pretty good team, nothing against my high school coach, but he never really let us know how good we were. I realized that and used it when I got to be a coach.”
For those of you that weren’t around in 1992, the Panthers did not win the state championship. Matt Ridge summarized the game, “It was a great game to be a part of. It was our first time to the championship game and Ayden-Grifton had been there before. Looking back on it our mentality was not what it should have been and that was in no way Coach Kent’s fault. That was on us. Subconsciously, I believe we were satisfied with just being there. Toward the end of the first half we were ahead and they went on a run and I believed it was tied at halftime. At the end of the game we were behind and kept fouling the wrong guy. He wound up hitting 14 in a row, which at the time was a state record. We played well just not well enough to win. We played against a team whose five starters went on to play in college. We got beat by a team that had won the state the previous year and returned all its starters.”
Although it was a disappointing loss, many believed that the Panthers were the best team in 2A basketball that year. The Panthers were a scoring machine as evidenced by a 112-92 win over North Davidson and a 120-69 rout of Randleman.
For the Panthers and Coach Kent it wasn’t always so easy. Coach Kent related, “The year we went 1-21 was not a fun time and when I analyzed and asked what did we get out of that year I thought, not very much. We had one player that didn’t play that much, but he did everything we asked. I realized I should have played him more. I made the decision that in the future if we are going to go 1-21 it is going to be with guys like that. My players are going to do what I ask and play hard. I’m not going to keep low character guys and we are going to teach character. When we began to do that, things began to change and four years later we were playing for the state championship.”
The ‘92 season had a lasting effect on players and coaches alike. Ridge has become a legendary coach at DCCC. Hege, Jacobs and Speight have all coached high school basketball. Speight has been in sales the last 12 years. Craven coached right out of college and has owned his own lawncare business the past 12 years in the Wallburg area. Younts and Christian are still involved with basketball, Younts coaching and Christian refereeing college basketball at the D1 and D2 level. Reich has been involved in banking and owns a business. He pointed out many of his former teammates are either business professionals or involved with athletics which is unique. “We learned a lot about leadership skills back in our time. I think you can tell today how special this group is meeting 25 years later and still being able to play!”
Coach Greg McKenzie coached the seniors when they were freshmen and sophomores (except for Hege who played varsity as a freshman). It was his first coaching job out of college. Remembering himself as Sergeant Carter and Coach Kent as the wise General, he believes it was providential being at Ledford and credits Coach Kent for molding his career.
When asked what made this group special the responses were similar. Reich spoke to how the team spent a lot of time together on and off the court and bonded. Craven mentioned how the team had one goal to win. “It didn’t matter who got the points, rebounds or assists as long as Ledford had more points at the end of the game!”
Coach Kent put it this way, “A great group of kids and a team that came the closest to reaching its potential than any other group I’ve worked with. They bought in to what we were teaching them. When they came in as freshmen the year before I believe we went 1-21. Some people were telling Brian Hege he should go to North Davidson and I believe there was a letter in the newspaper saying the coaches should be fired because we were so bad. The other thing was they were such a tight group that liked each other and spent a lot of time together. It always helps when they like each other and the parents were great too. It was different. The parents supported the team unconditionally. It’s not like some of the parents today where they are only cheering for their child and if their child gets taken out of the game, the coach is an idiot. It was just different. A great community, a great group of kids, a great group of parents. The community was so supportive. We sold gyms out before the games were played. Our concession people would complain because people wouldn’t get up out of their seats to buy a hotdog. It was kind of neat!”
Hege stated, “What made us so great is Coach instilled discipline and a love for the game. He stressed being dependable and accountable to each other. We keep in touch with each other, and even though we haven’t in some cases seen each other in 10 or 15 years, it seems like yesterday. We did everything together. We didn’t have to work out together because we played together all the time.”
Don’t be surprised if in 2042, there is a reporter with closed eyes hearing those similar sounds of the 1992 Ledford Panthers in a gymnasium close to you!