By Garrett Mitchell, Contributing Writer
Basketball in Woodruff has at times been an afterthought for many.
In a town known for football glory, success on the court is reaching new heights thanks to the RISE Developmental Basketball League. Implemented by Woodruff varsity boys coach Bryan McConnell, and years after its inception, the successful results are now manifested throughout all levels of participation in Woodruff.
Now seven years in, the success of the RISE program has generated a renewed excitement about the sport.
“I started the RISE program seven years ago when I was the boys middle school coach because we were keeping kids on the basketball team whose only experience with basketball was a couple weeks in PE class,” said McConnell. “We had kids that had never played (basketball) before and, at that time, Woodruff had zero basketball in the community. The Leisure Center had quit their program and at that time there was no church basketball either. Due to the lack of opportunities for kids to play basketball, we were way behind everyone else in our conference.”
McConnell wanted to take a grassroots approach to founding a youth league to assist in feeding the middle school and high school programs, aimed at implementing more skill from the younger age levels upward. McConnell took eight sixth graders who, for that first year, played in the Boiling Springs Church League. Then, a conversation with Dorman High School Athletic Director Flynn Harrell and varsity boys’ basketball coach Thomas Ryan, opened a greater avenue for McConnell’s fledgling program.
“The first two years with the District Six Developmental League we had one team of about 10 players,” said McConnell. “Then, as kids and our community realized that RISE was developing better basketball players and as well those kids were making the middle school team, we grew into two teams of about 9-10 each (a total of 18-20 kids) over the last three years. This year’s middle school team is the first middle school team that is solely comprised of all former RISE members.”
Now thriving, the RISE program has finally infiltrated the high school ranks at Woodruff with great success. This year’s varsity basketball team, which is currently in first place in Region III-3A and on track for its first winning record since 2013, has junior and senior classes comprised of players who were the first to come through the RISE program.
As well, the current RISE teams are enjoying terrific seasons. With their games played at Dorman High School against teams comprised of District Six athletes, the young men from Woodruff regularly win their games while showing a far greater understanding of the game and an improvement in skill.
That improvement comes from the installation of skills and terminology brought down from the varsity level by Coach McConnell, according to Chris Lea. Lea, who serves as the head coach for both RISE teams, has since taken over day-to-day operations from McConnell, allowing McConnell to focus solely on his high school team.
“When Coach McConnell put this thing together, one thing he wanted to do was bring the language, terminology, and skills that he wanted to convey down to the younger levels so that our kids were not at a disadvantage,” said Lea. “What that does is help these kids when they get to the middle school and high school to understand the game and what they are supposed to do on the court better. That part has really helped Woodruff basketball.”
Lea, who has been an integral part of RISE for four years, says the entire purpose of the program is to enrich the players in the game and provide a more solid foundation for the middle and high school programs for years to come.
“The entire purpose is to make better, more savvy basketball players,” added Lea. “You are seeing that now in the middle school and high school teams with the kids who were RISE players. I have seen so much improvement from our players and they are getting to the middle school ready to play. They aren’t shell-shocked by the pace of the game and their skill level is on par with their opponents.”
McConnell credits Lea and other leaders of the RISE program with turning it into the success it has become.
“RISE could not have happened without great people who have volunteered their time over the years to help coach,” he said. “This year is the first year that I have taken a more hands-off approach as I feel the program is established and running well now. Chris Lea is running the program for me along with Andrew Hodges and Woodruff alumnus Derrick Casey. These guys are doing a great job of not just coaching basketball but trying to help these young guys become great young men. Allowing the coaches to run [RISE] this year solely has freed up more time for me as a coach and father and I have been able to focus more on the varsity team.”
Taking a look at this year’s varsity basketball team and one can quickly see the mark that the RISE program is making on Woodruff basketball. A senior trio comprised of Marquel Evins, Tyler West and Omarion McKelvin were the backbone of the very first RISE team. Now those three have helped lead the Wolverines to a top-10 ranking in 3A and to first place in their conference, a feat not seen at Woodruff since 1981.
“It has been fun to coach our senior group that began in RISE in sixth grade,” McConnell added. “They have grown in every aspect of the game in the last seven years and they are the leaders behind our success. What is obvious to me is not just their basketball skill but their basketball IQ as all three of them play multiple sports including football, basketball, and track. I truly believe starting in RISE set forth a solid foundation for them as they do not concentrate solely on basketball like many schools we play.”
Now that the foundation is set, and with an established program developing successful and skilled players, one thing is certain. Basketball in Woodruff is on the RISE.