Team-first concept serves Sand Rock boys basketball team well

Sand Rock senior guard Garyn Sharpe drives past Midfield’s Shannon Jones on his way to the basket during the Class 2A boys Northeast Regional final last Thursday. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

SAND ROCK – In some respects, basketball is a lot like the military. They’re both competitive. They both teach an individual how to perform at their best, and they both require physical condition and sharp skills.

For Sand Rock senior guard Garyn Sharpe, the sport of basketball is a perfect melding of his family life (his dad Mark is an Army vet) and his on-the-court brothers.

Sharpe says he models his game after what his head coach John Blackwell teaches, and he stays in line because that what his dad has taught him. That’s why you don’t see Sharpe get overemotional on the court. He’s quite a reserved individual.

“I don’t really like to talk,” Sharpe said. “I just let my game do the talking. I feel like I can score because my teammates want me to score, so it’s easy for me to score.”

Sharpe’s game has spoken volumes throughout his high school playing days. Back on Feb. 5 at Hokes Bluff, he eclipsed the 1,000th point for his career on a 3-pointer in the early stages of the game.

Three weeks later in the Class 2A Northeast Regional final against top-ranked Midfield on Feb. 25, Sharpe netted 17 points, including four treys, in a season-ending 66-61 loss. He finished his career by scoring 1,089 points as the Wildcats earned a 24-6 season.

“I understand what Garyn’s saying there. I was the same way, and I probably coach a little bit like that,” Blackwell said. “My dad was a Korean War vet. He raised me, my brother and sister the same way. I tell these kids when I was a junior and senior, we had to get up in the morning, me and my brother, and run a mile before breakfast. If we didn’t run it fast enough, he would get behind us in the truck and we’d have to run it again. My dad just believed in being in shape. He believed if you did something you did it right. You didn’t worry about individual accolades. You worry about the team first.

“So Garyn is 100-percent right on that. A successful high school athletic program is real similar to the military. You have to put the individual work in for the collective group. There’s a lot of things out there you put the individual work in for individual accolades. Basketball is not that way, or in this program, it’s not that way.”

Sharpe isn’t the only Wildcat that’s bought in to the way Blackwell runs Sand Rock’s boys basketball program. A lot of assists that led to his points have come from fellow senior point guard Cade Ballenger.

Ballenger also had a milestone mark this season by dishing out his 500th career assist on Jan. 22 in a win over Cedar Bluff.

Ballenger finished his Sand Rock career with 1,287 points and 562 assists. And, like Sharpe, he respects the team-first concept.

“I’m extremely grateful for this team and what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Ballenger said. “It just goes back to hard work. It’s a huge blessing to be around guys like Garyn, Jacob (St. Clair), Eli Bates from last year. It’s all about chemistry. We’ve played together since the third grade. I played with Eli Bates since I was in second grade and he was in third grade. I played with all these guys before I even got to varsity, so just being able to form a chemistry on and off the court has really helped us as a team feed off of each other.”

“We’re all really close, on and off the court. We’re like brothers pretty much,” Sharpe added. “We’ve been that way since we were young. It’s good to play with people you’re comfortable around. It helps you play better.”

Blackwell got to coach Sharpe, Ballenger and the rest of the current Wildcat varsity players in the early stages of their basketball development as seventh and eighth graders. Since that time, he’s watched them make history.

“I don’t even think they got to play for a county championship in the seventh and eighth grade,” Blackwell said. “To see these guys come back and lose one county game their junior and senior year, to win back-to-back county championships, and this year not lose a county or an area game, to put the time and the effort and the work in they’ve put in the past three years to put themselves in position to not only win, speaks volumes.”

“Prior to these past two years, Sand Rock had only won eight county championships since the 50s. I’m not sure if they’ve ever won back-to-back. I don’t know how long it’s been since they’ve won a county and an area in the same year, but these guys not only won an area and county in the same year, they did it twice. I’m pretty sure it’s been decades since there’s been a Sand Rock boys team to go back-to-back county and area and sub-region trips in back-to-back years. It’s been a long time. These guys have put the time and work in to do that, and it’s nice to see them rewarded for it.”

It’s not been all serious business every day for the Wildcats on the court. Even though one doesn’t see a lot of emotion from Sharpe, Ballenger and company while they’re playing, Blackwell said it’s a different story inside the Wildcat locker room.

“There are a lot of people in Sand Rock who don’t understand how funny they are. They don’t understand what jokesters they are,” Blackwell said. “You get Garyn on a roll, and sometimes we hold our breath on what’s going to come out of his mouth. It’s never bad. It’s just very funny.”

But make no mistake, when they’re on the court the Wildcats are all about what it takes to win.

“There’s times where you have to be watching the game close, but there’s time where Cade or Garyn or Xander (Bradley) or one of those guys will turn around and say something to one of the underclassmen and say ‘We’ve got to do it this way,’” Blackwell said. “Those underclassmen respect them enough that they do it that way. They know these guys have put the time in. They’re not arrogant. They’re not cocky. What they’re saying is best for the team.

“When you’re humble yet successful, you can be a great leader. These guys are that. When you have a group of collected athletes who love the sport they’ve been playing and they buy in to team first, it’s special. The individual stuff just kind of comes along. It will get there, but when they trust the coaches enough to buy into that, then that’s when it’s special.”

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