The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 19, 2014

Cook, Bridgeport go back over 20 years

By J. Daniel Rollins
Register-Herald Sports Writer

— When Westside head coach Nick Cook steps on to the sidelines at the Charleston Civic Center tonight, he’ll do so with a lot of memories.

The 2014 West Virginia State Tournament marks the 20th anniversary of Oceana High School’s 68-61 1994 Class AA championship victory over Bridgeport.

Tonight, Cook will lead his group of Renegades against the same school that allowed him to etch his name in the history books forever.

But that’s not where the similarities end.

n In 1993, Bridgeport defeated Oceana in the Class AA finals. Twenty years after that defeat, Cook’s Renegades lost to Bridgeport in the opening round of the Class AA tournament.

n Following the 1993 championship, Bridgeport coach Bill Kearns retired, and the Indians also lost their two top scorers, Matt Kearns and Russ Sickles to graduation. Following the 2013 season, Bridgeport coach Gene Randolph retired and the Indians lost their two top scorers, Jordan Haywood and Tyler Sprouse to graduation.

n In the 1994 championship game, Oceana defeated Bridgeport in Randolph’s first season on the bench. This season, Westside will go head-to-head with coach Mike Robey for the first time.

n Oceana’s quest to the state championship was led by the late Benny Bowles. This year, the Renegades are led by senior guard Corey Bowles — the cousin of the Oceana legend.

History, it’s often said, has a way of repeating itself. Cook’s hoping it happens in 20 year spans.

“I was a freshman and didn’t dress varsity,” Cook said of the 1993 loss to Bridgeport. “I remember the success we had. The Tolsia comeback in the semifinals was big. We were down by 17 or 18 in the second half and won. I think that affected us in the state championship. It kind of used up all our mojo.”

The same could be said for last season’s Westside team, which had pulled off momentum building wins over rival Wyoming East and a regional final against PikeView, but seemed to run out of mojo in the opening round against Bridgeport. Facing desperate foul trouble and a pair of Renegades dealing with illness, No. 3 Westside fell to No. 6 Bridgeport.

But just as 1993 ended for Oceana — losing only a single senior to graduation — so did 2013 for Westside, losing only Jason Scarlett.

Now, the experienced Renegades are back against a young Bridgeport team with a first-year head coach, just as Oceana had 20 years ago.

Cook is hoping his team will join that same championship-winning fraternity as his team from two decades ago.

“The whole experience, you never forget,” Cook said. “You can win all the individual awards, but when you sit around with former teammates, none of us talk about the individual awards. We always talk about team achievements. We will forever be state champions. It’s just a great experience.”

Cook sees a lot of his late friend and teammate Benny in his senior veteran, Corey. Benny Bowles passed away shortly before the start of the 2013 tournament.

“It was a tough time for all of us,” Cook said. “It was on our mind during the tournament last year.”

But it was the same passion with which Benny played the game he loved that he sees in the younger Bowles.

“They have the same desire to win,” Cook said. “Everyone assumed Benny Ray was a great basketball player, but his desire to win outweighed all of his physical abilities. He took on the refuse to lose mentality and set the tone for the rest of us. That’s something that you can say about Corey, too. They both just refuse to lose.”

Cook pointed out Bowles’ decision to play the 2013-14 season with a lingering knee injury as opposed to sitting out anywhere between three weeks to the entire season to repair it.

“He said ‘There’s no way I’m missing the whole season,’” said Cook.

Perhaps someday Bowles will have the same relationship with Cook that Cook has with his former teacher, coach Jim Hopkins.

“I still talk to coach Hopkins quite a bit,” he said. “I get his input on a lot of things.”

And as for those former Oceana teammates, including Jamie Lusk, who just brought Westside home its second Class AA girls state championship?

“A lot of people on that team are still really close,” he said. “I just called Dan (Fleenor) because he and Thomas Evans want to take my kids out to eat while we’re in town. That bond will forever be there. I’m not saying we wouldn’t have had it if we hadn’t won the state championship, but they always say the friends you have in college are the ones that last forever. Not me. We’re a weird group. If I need something at 3 a.m., that’s who I’m calling.”

— E-mail: jrollins and follow on Twitter at @JDanielRollins.