Those old county rivalries were just the best

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The subtext of the story of Lucama High School winning the state 1-A baseball championship in its final days as a high school in 1978 is what was lost from the Wilson city and county schools merger that went into effect later that year.

There was a lot to be gained, namely the addition of Hunt and Beddingfield high schools that brought the city and county much closer together. And that was no small feat. In those days, Lucama seemed as far away as Raleigh, as did Elm City, Saratoga and Black Creek. I was 12 years old in 1978 and I wasn’t even sure where Rock Ridge was.

By the time I graduated from Hunt in 1984, I counted friends from Rock Ridge, Lucama as well as all over the county. Today, that cohesion is even more evident with fancy subdivisions scattered around Wilson County — city living gone to the country.

But what I remember the most about the spring of 1978, besides Lucama’s run to its third North Carolina High School Athletic Association 1-A baseball title, was that it was the last time the Cobras, the Raiders, the Panthers, the Cougars and the Vikings would ever be high school teams.

Much can be said of how merger affected the sense of community Wilson had toward its only high school from 1971 to 1978. During its run of three straight state 4-A championships in football in the late 1960s, Fike enjoyed community support that few teams have ever had in North Carolina. But that didn’t begin with the championship stretch and it lasted long afterwards. For a myriad of reasons too long to go into here, it’s just never been the same since Hunt and Beddingfield were built.

But what I think was truly lost from the 1978 merger were the rivalries between the smaller communities in Wilson County.

“You talk about Saratoga and Lee Woodard and Rock Ridge and Lucama – a rivalry!” said Ronald Parrish, a junior outfielder on Lucama’s state championship team in 1978. “People looked forward to going on a Friday night to watch a baseball game or basketball!”

That came to a head in the spring of 1978 when Lucama supplanted its archrival, Rock Ridge, as the state 1-A baseball king. In fact, the Raiders could probably take a little credit for helping the Cobras take their crown when they won the NCHSAA 1-A title in 1977.

“That kind of didn’t set well with us because we had a great team that year, too,” said Alan Boyette, Lucama’s junior shortstop in 1978.

Les Renfrow, Lucama’s senior second baseman, explained further.

“It was a great rivalry,” he said. “We went to Springfield (Middle School) together so we got to be good friends with all those guys and then we’d separate. We wanted to beat each other terribly. It was always a good, clean rivalry but we we wanted to beat them.”

The Raiders were the measuring stick and the Cobras felt like they measured up.

“I don’t know how I knew but I knew we had something special,” said Charles Curlings, Lucama’s senior third baseman. “Call it cocky or whatever but I called the guys together before our first practice and said, ‘Rock Ridge won it last year and as good as they are, we’re going to win it this year.’”

It didn’t start out that way. The Cobras lost twice to the Raiders during the regular season. Then, having to win the Carolina 1-A East Conference tournament to reach the state playoffs, Lucama defeated the regular-season champion Raiders in the tourney semifinals.

Jimmy Tillman, now the Wilson County Schools athletic director after a long career that included being the principal at Fike and the SouthWest Edgecombe football coach, was the assistant baseball coach (and head football coach) from 1976-1978. If anyone understood the fun of a rivalry between small towns, it was Tillman.

He made a big deal of a new pair of white spikes he bought just before Lucama and Rock Ridge met in the conference tournament, proclaiming to anyone who would listen, including Tom Ham of the Daily Times, that those shoes would be used to “kick Rock Ridge’s (butt) with.” Naturally that comment was the centerpiece of the story that ran in the paper leading up to the game.

Tillman’s good friend, Rock Ridge football coach and assistant baseball coach Bill Williamson, telephoned to let him know that if he wanted to kick anyone’s (butt) in Rock Ridge, he could start with him.

Only seven or eight years older than most of the players at the time, Tillman was the inspirational leader of the Cobras. Often the first one in the mad dash onto the field after a big win, he was a complement to Lucama head coach Bob Pope’s steady-going, down-to-earth personality.

“It didn’t matter what time of day it was when we were practicing for that state championship, he was on everybody to be serious,” said Donald Parrish, the Cobras’ right fielder in 1978. “I really look up to him for that. Every time I see his face or hear his name, that’s what I think about, the coach he was and what he gave to the team. Because he didn’t have to do it. He was the football coach.:

When the teams met again a couple of weeks later, it was in the second round of the state playoffs and, literally, for all the marbles. The loser would turn in their uniforms for the last time and the winner would probably have the inside track on the state championship.

The Wilson Daily Times account of the game played at Rock Ridge High suggested a crowd of more than 1,000.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Pope, the Lucama native who was the Cobras last head coach. “It was a lot of pressure, because you wanted to win the ball game, but it was a lot of fun! Jimmy talking about those shoes, probably got about 500 of them out there to the game that night!”

I remember listening to Alton Britt broadcast the game on WGTM. Lucama won 5-3 in 11 innings as the Cobras outlasted the Raiders ace, Robert Simpson, who might still be the best high school pitcher from Wilson in my lifetime.

That game featured great pitching performances from Lucama’s Jeff Watson and Keith Lucas and a home run by Rock Ridge’s Babe Allen. While Lucama still had to beat Jamesville in the Eastern championship game and Prospect in the state finals series, the win over Rock Ridge is the one that everyone remembers.

Twin brothers Ronald and Donald Parrish, the Cobras’ starting left and right fielders, remember it was the only game their late mother, Marie, ever saw them play.

Fans lined the foul area from home plate to the outfield fence down both sides in what has to be one of the biggest baseball games ever played between county teams.

Then it was over.

The following year, Ronald Parrish, Lucas and Boyette were among the players on the first Hunt team, coached by former Rock Ridge head coach Ritchie Wynn. Pope was the first athletic director at Hunt and later the Warriors baseball coach. Several Rock Ridge players, including Simpson and Mike Wells, were on that first Warriors edition that actually made the state 4-A playoffs. But it was never the same.

Parrish was wistful about the team Lucama could have had in 1979 with the players coming back and the ones that were coming up.

Watson said it was special to have played on Lucama’s last team and to have won a state title, but it was strange to not have somewhere to come home to the following year.

“The only drawback to it was that we didn’t really get a chance to come back that next year to go to a practice or to go back to school to talk to the younger guys and do stuff like that,” he said.

Lucama’s third championship edition was connected to its first two. The 1960 Red Devils were coached by Hugh Flowers, the Lucama principal in 1978. Several of the 1978 Cobras had family members on the 1969 championship team, coached by Gary Ray. There was a strong community spirit in Lucama that was directly tied to its high school. The same thing was true in Black Creek, Saratoga and Stantonsburg, Rock Ridge and Elm City and New Hope.

And then, those county high schools — Lucama, Rock Ridge, Lee Woodard, Saratoga Central and Elm City — were gone, or actually turned into elementary or middle schools.

Change, for better or worse, is inevitable. Small schools and small towns either grow or get left behind. There are only memories left now and for those who were there, they get sweeter as time goes by.