Enquirer Herald

Gene Graham: A trip down memory lane of York, Clover sports

When I received a call that western York County’s hometown newspaper, the (York/Clover) Enquirer-Herald, would cease publishing Dec. 24, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

My first Graham Cracker column was published in the Yorkville Enquirer on Sept. 12, 1968. That should give you an idea of my longtime association with the Enquirer, and later with the Blue Eagle faithful, when the York and Clover newspapers merged in 2007 become the Enquirer-Herald.

I was 20-something when I was hired as reporter/photographer for the Yorkville Enquirer in the spring of 1968.

But my first association with York’s hometown newspaper was long before that, when I covered football games during my freshman year at York High School.

Even before that, I delivered the newspaper on my bicycle as a junior high student, which means my association with the Enquirer spanned parts of six decades.

There are so many cherished sports memories from that time that I do not know where to start.

My first memory of a special moment in high school sports occurred in the 1970s, when then-head football coach and athletic director Jerry Lewis and I accompanied the York girls’ softball team to the state championship game.

After losing an emotionally charged game, the players were silent on the trip home.

Suddenly, Sherry McGill, a country vocalist in her spare time, who left this world at a far-too-early age, and whose genuine friendship I will forever cherish, started singing, “Knock Three Times,” and all of the players joined in.

This led to a previously planned victory cigar celebration, though the state title had slipped away. Everyone on the bus, including coach Lewis and I, took a puff, symbolic of the softball team’s amazing season.

Not too many years later, the York baseball team, under the leadership of coach Tom Weaver, brought home a state championship that was a source of pride.

There was turmoil surrounding high school athletics in York in the early 1980s, during which the high school had three mascots: the Green Dragons for football, the Blue Devils for basketball and the Cardinals for baseball.

The three-mascot idea was greeted with divisiveness and marginal support for the overall athletic program.

That is until York school officials hired Bill Pate to coach the football team. Pate’s arrival coincided with a mascot change, with the Cougars replacing the three previous mascots.

With a dismal football program at the time, Cougar excitement could best be described as marginal, until the year Pate’s team defeated Rock Hill and Northwestern back-to-back at home.

With the Rock Hill game in doubt and the scoreboard clock winding down, James Weeks’ punt return for a touchdown that had fans dancing in the aisles.

As I looked from atop the Pratt Field press box, I saw people who previously barely spoke to each other sharing the excitement with congratulatory hugs. The chant “Go Cougars!” could be heard.

I was fighting back tears of joy. A community once divided had united behind its young people. It was a proud moment that I will forever cherish.

In 1986, the Cougar football team won the state championship and Pate’s mission had been accomplished.

I will never forget the night my son, Rusty, startled a couple hundred basketball fans at Broome High School. Playing for the junior varsity Cougars, Rusty heaved a last-second shot from 10 feet behind the half court line. The ball hit nothing but the bottom of the basket.

Broome fans stood and cheered Rusty. Kendall McCarter’s mother ran onto the court and kissed him. Both game officials went over and shook his hand.

Basketball sensation Ivory Latta

Ivory Latta’s impact on the YCHS sports scene will never be forgotten. The basketball sensation, who scored 70 points in her final home game at the “dome,” is the greatest high school athlete I have ever seen, male or female.

Legendary basketball coach Arsonia Stroud moved Ivory to varsity when she was a seventh-grader and the rest is history.

Ivory became the career-leading scorer in the history of high school basketball in this state, and led her team to a state championship.

Traveling with the local sports teams has been somewhat entertaining.

There was the time I accompanied Paula Blackwell’s basketball team to a playoff game. I was the only man on the bus.

As we were walking through a back entrance to the gym, Paula looked at the security guard and pointed to me, blurting, “This is our pimp.”

And how about Clover quarterback Tony Cook’s dramatic touchdown pass to Ronnie McGill, that lifted the Blue Eagles over rival York?

It was just a few years ago that Clover and York played for the 100th time in the storied football rivalry, a classic beyond description.

In addition to my sports coverage, I served as editor of the Enquirer for many years, with Mike Faulkenberry holding the same role for the Clover Herald.

Several years before the merger of the two newspapers, management did some reshuffling. I became news editor for both papers and Mike’s expertise shifted to page design. It was then, a dozen or so years ago, that I began to cover Clover and York high school sports.

It wasn’t long before I was writing about Jet Turner’s Clover High state championship football team, a source of pride. Quarterback Matt Endicott was the dynamic leader of Clover’s greatest football team ever.

While the Clover football team’s title win was a proud moment in Blue Eagle sports lore, Clover tennis gained elite status and Shea Hall’s softball team reached the mountain top.

I had the good fortune of watching shortstop Marisa Harkey hit two three-run homers in the first inning of a game with Clinton. Both home runs were far and deep over the left-centerfield fence. It was an electric moment that brought out the kid in me. Absolutely amazing.

Speaking of amazing, the CHS softball team’s state championship run last season was just that.

Hannah “The Hammer” Curtis stepped to the plate in the fourth inning and ripped a two-run double off the top of the wall in left-center, missing a grand slam by a foot or two.

It was one of the most dramatic sports moments I have ever seen and the timely double catapulted the Clover team to the state title.

Though the Cougar football team’s 2014 state championship run fell short in the title game against Spartanburg, York native Bobby Carroll has the Cougars averaging 10 wins per season.

My list of memorable moments is endless. I have to stop at some point.

So why did this aging sports writer continue to write about York and Clover athletics until this newspaper’s demise?

It’s the York and Clover athletes, coaches and fans. It’s the bonding, the connection. There’s nothing like it.

When Blue Eagle sports loyalist David Campbell writes a letter to the editor praising my sports coverage, it means something.

When York film crew legend Jim Austin reminds press box personnel of my sports announcing days, it means something.

When Clover film crew member Bubba Boyd shares insults with me, it means something.

When a YCHS cheerleader chases me down in the hallway and hands me a Bible verse to put in my billfold, it means something.

When Blue Eagle basketball standout Lynsey Comalander greets me with her genuine smile, it means something.

When YCHS softball standout Sydney Phillips extends a genuine friendship to me with her radiant personality, it means something.

When YCHS head trainer “Doc” Smith had allowed me to travel with his trainers to York football games for decades, it means something.

When then-Clover High principal Mark Hopkins told me a couple years ago, “If York people get tired of you, you can join the Clover family where you are loved,” it means something.

And watching my granddaughter, Natalee Graham, emerge as a pure shooter for the Cougar basketball team has been an absolute thrill.

Writing about York and Clover athletes with a positive spin is the way I chose to do it.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say thanks to athletic directors Steve Boyd of York Comprehensive High and Carroll Hester of Clover High. I would have been at a loss without these two.

I’d also like to thank the longtime co-owners of our newspapers, Jim Owen of Clover and the late Ned Burgess, for believing in me and supporting me when I needed it most.

It rips my heart out to see a young person suffer in an athletic event, in the classroom, in life. High school athletes deserve something good said about them. They deserve unconditional support.

Some people ask what’s wrong our young people.

My answer: Nothing; absolutely nothing. Today’s young people are gifted. They are special. They are the wind beneath my wings.