By Dave Morrison

SHADY SPRING – There wasn’t a perpetual itch to coach, but Shady Spring boys basketball coach Ronnie Olson remembers when he first felt the need to scratch.

“It was shortly after my sophomore year and I was coaching a little AAU team,” Olson said “I was 19, I took my own money and had a whole lot of help from people. I felt like it was something I could do over the summer. I would get in my car and drive from Bluefield to Beckley to practice. We got some jerseys from a team in Beckley. We ended up being pretty good. We qualified for the nationals. We didn’t have enough money to go to Orlando (Fla.) but I started thinking this was something I would like to do.”

Shady Spring is sure glad he decided to go that path.

The Tigers last season set a school record with 22 wins and were a win over Westside from making a second ever trip to the state tournament. That’s when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season.

With seniors like Tommy Williams and Luke LeRose, both first-team all-staters who signed to continue their careers at Glenville State, this was supposed to be Shady Spring’s season. 

“I really think we were on the verge of doing something special and we were going to make that second-ever trip to Charleston,” Olson said. “But it was almost like a first (the last trip was 26 years ago, 1994, six years before Olson would help Independence reach the Class AA state championship game as a player in 2000).

“We’d accomplished so much, so many firsts. First team to reach No. 1 (in the state AP poll), first team to beat Woodrow Wilson, first team to have two first-team all-state players, first to win 22 games. We hadn’t been able to beat Bluefield and we did that this year. And I feel like reaching the state tournament was another thing I could scratch off my bucket list.

“To not be able to finish the season, it’s still hard for me to talk about it. I remember losing that state championship game (to Magnolia) my senior year and it took me a long time to get over that. I just feel bad that these kids didn’t get to play it out.”

What would have happened? Hard to say, but Olson believes the team would have been a No. 4 or 5 seed if it had gone to Charleston, though he believes his Tigers should have been No. 3.

Chapmanville was the likely No. 1, followed by Bluefield, the only team to beat Shady Spring, doing so twice, including in the Region 3, Section 2 championship game. That set up the trip to Clear Fork, a trip, as it turned out, didn’t happen.

Robert C. Byrd, a team Shady beat early in the season, but a team that had not lost since that game, and the Tigers would likely be in line to get the three seed.

“I just think that by losing in our sectional championship game, we would have been a No. 4 or 5 seed,” Olson said. “But I feel like if we got there with all we did we deserved the three.”

The second week of March was one to remember for Olson. And, one, in some respects, he’d like to forget.

On Wednesday morning, March 11, he was in Charleston, at the girls state tournament, watch his daughter Anyah, a sophomore at PikeView, play.

“It was much harder to watch her play in the tournament than it was to play myself or coach my guys,” Olson said. “I didn’t have any control over what happened. I couldn’t coach. I told her before the game (PikeView beat defending state champion Fairmont Senior 59-55) she didn’t have any idea exactly how big a moment it would be when you run out on that floor to warm up before the game. You think you do, but you really don’t. After the game she said, ‘You were right.’ That was one of the most enjoyable kids sports moments I’ve had.”

The Lady Panthers stayed in Charleston, scheduled to play again Friday, and Olson returned home to ready his team for the trip to Clear Fork. He was in his room at the school Thursday, getting some snacks for his team, and had just got off the phone with the bus driver for that night’s game, talking about the departure time.

That’s when his daughter contacted him.

“She said, ‘dad, we are over here at the mall and they are saying they are going to cancel that tournament,’ “ Olson said “I told her there was no way, that I would have heard something. But sure enough, that was what happened. We were all set to go and then everything was shut down.”

Olson said it was a tough pill for his team, but they navigated those troubled waters in over the next weeks.

“I think they have all accepted it and moved on, and I’m really proud of those kids,” Olson said. “For this to have been what we thought was going to be the year and for a lot of those guys their final shot, they have had a good perspective on everything. We went from group texts where I was saying ‘there is still hope, there is still hope’ to ‘well guys, it’s over.’ That was devastating.”

Olson will get a chance to coach Williams and LeRose one more time, as one of the coaches of the South squad for the North-South all-star game, June 12 in South Charleston.

“I’m looking forward to that, getting to coach those guys one more time,” Olson said.

He noted that the South roster is stocked, with all-staters like Chapmanville’s Obinna Anochili-Killen, Logan’s David Early and Bluefield’s Braeden Crews.

“ I told somebody the other day I can’t believe how stacked that roster is,” Olson said.

Shady Spring is 72-26 in the last four years under Olson, and, as Olson noted, right on schedule with what he had hoped for the program.

“I wanted this program to be talked about in the same breath with teams like Chapmanville and Fairmont,” Olson said. “I thought we were on our way and I think we will be right back in the mix next season.”

Along with Williams and LeRose, the Tigers lose Greyson Shepherd, Erick Bevil, twins Haven and Dane Chapman, Grey Hazuka and manager Chase Mullins.

But back are the second group of Chapman twins, Braden and Cole, both of whom had stellar freshman campaigns, shooter Todd Duncan and a cast of young players who have waited for their opportunities.

It’s a new era, with Shady Spring scheduled to be a Class AAA team under the new four-class pilot program being given a two-year test run by the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission.

The Tigers will be in Class AAA Region 3, Section 1 with Westside, Independence and PikeView.

PikeView is the only team from Shady Spring’s previous section. Gone is long-time nemesis Bluefield. Westside and Olson’s alma mater Independence were former Section 1 opponents.

“Westside is probably the favorite on paper,” Olson said. “They return everyone and they are long and tall. But I think we will be right there.”

The section will be held at the Beckley Raleigh County Convention Center (Armory) and will be the same format as the past, although there will not be a play-in game.

Olson said he has found a home at Shady Spring. He had other opportunities, had chances to take other programs over the years. He had been a successful middle school coach in Raleigh County after he started his career as an assistant coach at his alma mater under his former coach Chad Perkins. He also served a stint as an assistant under Steve Clark at Shady Spring.

“When I went to Independence coach Perkins gave me free reign to coach the JV team and I will always appreciate that,” Olson said. “When I came here, coach showed me the ropes. I had always wanted to build a program and put my stamp on it, I think all coaches want that.”