ELITE COMPANY: County prep legends reunite at NCHSAA’s centennial celebration
By Brad Crawford firstname.lastname@example.org
CARY — Ronnie Chavis remembers lying in the bed of his parents’ Pembroke home wide awake as a teenager, repeating his pre-pitch ritual before taking the mound the following day.
At Prospect High the next morning, the future Pembroke State Hall of Famer couldn’t focus on his schoolwork, drifting into a dream between math problems of what it would be like to play under the lights a few hours later.
“I didn’t play my first night game until my senior year of high school if you can believe that,” Chavis said. “I remember it well. I couldn’t believe it was happening. You look at baseball now and day games at the prep level are rare. These kids are lucky.”
In connection with the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s centennial celebration, the state’s sports governing body recognized top administrators, athletes and coaches with a ‘100 to Remember’ gala last weekend in Cary, a black tie affair hosted by Rick Strunk, the NCHSAA’s associate commissioner and master of ceremonies.
Chavis was among the eight local legends in Robeson County athletics that were honored on stage and reminisced about past greatness, memorable plays and illustrious careers in public education. The area’s three player selections along with Chavis were joined by a former coach, Ray Oxendine, and three other longtime administrators — Doc Harrell, Tim Brayboy and Donald Bonner — on the NCHSAA’s prestigious lists.
Billie McDowell and Anna Evans-Keene, starters on Lumberton’s 2001 girls basketball state champion team, represented the area’s top female stars.
“One of the many things I remember most about the state championship game is running out of the tunnel for warm-ups and seeing all the Pirate fans in the stands,” McDowell said. “The support was unbelievable.”
McDowell took her talents to N.C. State after high school while Evans-Keene made an impact on North Carolina’s softball team.
Evans-Keene played baseball with her brother and father until she reached the ninth grade. She owned five Lumberton batting records before Meagan Skipper broke three of those last season.
“I owe my softball start to coach (Mackie) Register,” Evans-Keene said. “He gets the credit for taking me away from baseball.”
Evans-Keene, the 2003 NCHSAA State Player of the Year, is a dentist in Apex. McDowell, a human resources specialist in Raleigh, is finishing her masters and expects to graduate next month.
It’s been nearly 13 years since the pair cut down the nets for Danny Graham’s Lady Pirates inside the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
“It hit me (how long it’s been) when I attended my class reunion,” McDowell said. “It hasn’t felt like it’s been long at all.”
Added Evans-Keene: “I still think about that day all time. Being a Carolina fan growing up and always watching games there on television, I get chills when I remember the maroon and gold and the following that we had.”
Male athlete Dwight Lowry, one of the best baseball players to ever come through the area, starred at North Carolina before playing four years in the professional ranks with the Detroit Tigers.
Oxendine, a graduate of Pembroke High and Catawba College, served time as principal at both Purnell Swett and South Robeson after numerous years at Greensboro Grimsley.
Before retiring in 2012 following a 12-year stint as athletic director at Garner High, Harrell received the the Charlie Adams Distinguished Service award, multiple region honors as an administrator and led St. Pauls to state baseball titles in 1989 and 1991.
“That was an enjoyable era to be around Robeson County athletics, especially a coach,” Harrell said. “It really brought the community together. We played one of our state championships at home and I remember the bleachers being four people deep and full. The memories of winning those things have lasted a lifetime.”
Brayboy worked for the state’s Department of Public Instruction for more than two decades and has additionally served 43 years as a football and basketball official for the NCHSAA. He also co-authored a book on the history of Native American prep basketball.
Bonner, a NCHSAA Hall of Famer like Oxendine, was mentioned as a top administrator having served a 15-year stint as associate superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County. Bonner was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1996.
NCHSAA commissioner David Whitfield presented each individual etched on the ‘100 to Remember’ lists a commemorative medallion and a special 100th anniversary watch during the event.
“I was talking it over with Doc and Tim just how lucky we really are,” Chavis said. “If you would’ve told me I’d be rubbing elbows on stage with David Thompson and Tom Burleson, I wouldn’t have believed it. It was very humbling to be amongst those individuals, the best of the best in North Carolina.”
Said Evans-Keene: “I was honored to be included in such a prestigious group. It was very well done.”
The highlight of the night for Chavis was being introduced to gold medalist and former NCAA All-American Phil Ford, North Carolina’s second all-time leading scorer. Ford was drafted second overall by the Sacramento Kings and was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 1979.
“I asked him if he could put on the Carolina uniform for another season,” Chavis joked. “We need some shooters.”
Brad Crawford may be reached at 910-272-6111 or on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.
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