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The weight of four decades may have muddied some of the details but it hasn’t dimmed the memory of what it felt like to truly go out on top for the members of the 1978 Lucama High School baseball team.
The Cobras fashioned a storybook, if not unlikely, finish to not only their season by winning the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 1-A championship, but also the end of Lucama High’s existence. The school would continue as an elementary school, which is still is today, but students from Lucama, Rock Ridge and Wilson would go to James B. Hunt Jr. High School starting in the fall of 1978.
The Cobras’ last dance, as it were, all came to a head during the blazing first week of June in 1978 when they put an indelible stamp on what would be among their sweetest memories. A reunion is being planned for later in the summer but many of the players assured they have never forgotten that day, week or season.
“One of the proudest things I’ve ever had to do was put my jersey on and wear it that day,” senior third baseman Charles Curlings said. “Other than my kids being born, that state championship was one of the best times of my life.”
Junior right fielder Donald Parrish said: “I think about it all the time. All my life, I’ve thought about it. Anytime I see anything on sports where people rush the field, I think about it every single time. There’s not many who can say, ‘I won a state championship.’ I can say that.”
The last day of classes was June 8, the day Lucama would face NCHSAA 1-A West champion Prospect in what was originally supposed to be game 1 of the best-of-three state championship series. The teams ended up playing two games and Lucama won both to claim its third state championship, the most of any public school in Wilson County.
“That night was the way it was supposed to be,” said Bob Pope, the Cobras head coach at the time. “It couldn’t get any better, just leave it the way it was and enjoy it!”
The state title was the culmination of a season that began with a lot of expectations before a losing streak all but ended Lucama’s hopes of a state crown. Then came a late-season surge that included the Carolina 1-A East Conference tournament championship and ended with 11 straight wins.
“Different plays throughout the season, if it had have gone one way or the other, none of this would have taken place,” said first baseman-pitcher Jeff Watson, one of four seniors on the team. “It worked against us the years before. One year we finished third and they took the top two (for the state playoffs) and the next year they took the tournament champion.”
The Cobras didn’t have any real stars, although nearly everyone agrees that junior shortstop-pitcher Alan Boyette was the best athlete on the team. Junior pitcher Keith Lucas was the workhorse, going 10-3 on the season and getting a win and a save in the two championship series games. Watson — nicknamed “Scrap Iron” by his youth baseball coach Sherwood Johnson, the grandfather of Cobras junior catcher Sandy Johnson — was dependable as a pitcher, fielder and hitter. Senior second baseman-shortstop Les Renfrow was the team leader while senior third baseman Charles Curlings was known for his wisecracks, solid defense and potent bat.
Twin brothers Ronald and Donald Parrish manned the corner outfield positions while senior flyhawk Larry Proctor patrolled center field and Johnson was a reliable catcher. Junior Eric Ferrell could be relied upon to play infield or outfield while Mark Collier was a back-up catcher and outfielder. Reserves Dean Lucas, Ronald Bass, Gary Ferrell and Doug Pope, as well as beloved player-manager Victor Sauls, were all contributors to the Cobras’ success.
“That team worked hard, they really did, but they worked hard because they enjoyed playing the game,” Bob Pope said. “And that’s every one of them, not just those in the starting lineup. … They had a good time every time they went out there.”
Jimmy Tillman, the Cobras football head coach and assistant baseball coach long before he was the SouthWest Edgecombe football coach, Fike High principal and now Wilson County Schools athletic director, remembered the enthusiasm the 1978 team had.
“They loved to practice and they would take a thousand ground balls if you would hit it to them,” Tillman said. “They loved to play the game but Bob was really good at getting them to play relaxed and putting them in the right places at the right time.”
Ronald Parrish remembered spending many winter nights hitting a tire hanging from the ceiling of the packhouse on the family farm.
“That’s what Coach Tillman told me to do. ‘Hit that tire, boy, hit that tire!’” Parrish said.
Boyette said: “That would really strengthen your arms up. It would make your wrists and arms a lot stronger, especially if you just swung slow and pushed all the way through that tire like you were supposed to.”
Team chemistry was important, Renfrow said.
“I really don’t think we had more talent (than any other team),” he said. “We played well together. WE got along and pulled for each other. We were just a close-knit group.”
That came from growing up together in a small community, Boyette noted.
“In the summertime — and we all stayed right there in Lucama, a town of, back then, about six or seven hundred people — we played sports all the time,” Boyette said. “On a Saturday, we might be playing basketball that morning and have a baseball game that afternoon. We knew each other and we played together throughout our whole lives.”
ROLLERCOASTER REGULAR SEASON
The Cobras won four of their first five games, the only loss was a 7-6 decision at Fike, then a 4-A team, on a bad-hop grounder over Renfrow’s head. After dropping a 2-1 outcome at Rock Ridge, Lucama’s archrival and the defending state 1-A champion, the Cobras caught fire, winning their next four games by a combined 62-12 margin, including a 32-2 blowout at Coats. However, that came at a cost, Watson said.
“That’s what killed us. Right after that we lost four straight because it threw everybody’s timing off,” he contended.
Lucama actually lost four of its next five but the first loss, an 8-5 setback at Rosewood, was under protest by Pope and by the time it was ruled a Lucama loss, it was the fourth straight for the Cobras.
“There was some soul searching during that four-game losing streak, I’m gonna tell you!” Watson assured.
But Lucama righted itself with a 2-1 win at North Duplin, the first of 11 straight victories and four in a row to end the regular season. But the Cobras had to win the Carolina 1-A East tourney to reach the NCHSAA playoffs and found themselves in a pickle right off the bat, falling behind 8-0 to Midway after two innings of their first-round game.
But the Cobras rallied with Watson taking over for Lucas and holding Midway at bay as Lucama stormed back to win 13-8. That set up a third meeting with Rock Ridge, which had swept the two regular-season meetings. This time it was Boyette, holding the conference champion Raiders to just seven hits while out dueling Rock Ridge ace and conference pitcher of the year Robert Simpson 5-2.
“That was at least one game I do remember a little bit,” Boyette said. “You know sometimes you have those days when you get to the ball field you know something special’s going to happen. I didn’t really think about pitching or the game but I just had a special feeling about that.”
Lucas returned to the mound for the championship game, blanking a red-hot Lee Woodard team 3-0 to send the Cobras into the state playoffs.
MARCH TO GLORY
Lucama knocked off Cardinal Gibbons in the opening round of the state 1-A playoffs, only to set up another meeting with Rock Ridge, this time on the Raiders field. With both schools set for consolidation into Hunt, this would be the last game ever between the rivals. In front of a crowd of more than 1,000 spectators, the Cobras, behind the pitching of Watson and Lucas, pulled out a 5-3 victory in 11 innings.
“I’ll never forget that we got on the bus and rode home that night and it was such a relief,” Ronald Parrish said. “We did beat Rock Ridge. We finally got over that hump and beat Rock Ridge.”
The Cobras then pulled out a 4-2 win over Jamesville, with Renfrow coming up with a big hit, in the 1-A Eastern final played at East Carolina University’s Harrington Field.
As the championship series approached, along with the end of Lucama’s days as a high school, going out on top was all anyone could think about. Principal Hugh Flowers, who was the coach of Lucama’s 1960 championship team, was the Cobras’ No. 1 fan while Tillman pointed out that teacher Gaynelle Wallace was their biggest cheerleader.
Boyette recalled Flowers pulling him into his office that week just to remind him that “there will not be any more Lucama High School sports after this year.”
The Cobras won the first game against Prospect 3-1 in Fleming Stadium with Lucas out dueling Wildcats ace Eric Collins. Pope said that Prospect head coach James Locklear asked after the game if the teams could play the second game that night so the Wildcats wouldn’t have to come back to Wilson — unless they won and needed a third game.
After getting the field ready in Fleming, the teams went back at it and Prospect immediately took a 4-1 lead. With rain starting to fall, Pope grinned at the memory of Lucama fans insisting the game be called — in hopes of the lead being wiped out. Instead, everyone waited out a long thunderstorm before the game resumed in the third.
The Cobras scratched across a run in the fourth and another in the fifth before pint-sized reserve Eric Ferrell delivered a two-out, two-run single to put Lucama ahead for keeps. The Cobras then erupted for eight runs in the sixth inning with Curlings launching a triple to the deepest part of Fleming’s spacious right-center field alley.
Prospect answered with five runs in the bottom of the sixth, bringing Lucas back to the mound to finish the job before midnight, leading to yet another red-and-black dog pile of celebrating players led by, as always, Tillman.
The ride back to Lucama is etched in the minds of most of the players. Just as the town had done in 1960 and 1969, cars lined the street to greet the team with the volunteer fire department trucks sounding their horns.
“It looked like the whole town of Lucama had come from Fleming Stadium and gone back to the school!” Renfrow said.
Ronald Parrish, his voice choking at the memory, recalled: “It was unbelievable! Fire trucks down the road in Lucama! It was just an exciting moment. I can think about it right now, looking out the window down the road and cars lined up all down from 301 to get to Lucama school and all the people waiting for us.
“It’s something you won’t never forget and I get chill bumps and get emotional about it because it was just amazing. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
Some of the players would go on to wear the blue and silver of Hunt the following year and many would stay active on softball diamonds for years afterward. Now in their late 50s, the memory of their accomplishment and the feeling of going out on top hasn’t diminished.
Boyette, the spectacular athlete who lost the use of his legs after a workplace accident in 2006, summed it up.
“Those memories, I think about it more now since I can’t do some of the things I used to do,” he said. “I think about it a lot because that’s something you won’t ever forget.”