March 5, 2011 10:14:00 PM
REFORM, Ala. -- Russ Wallace delivered a much shorter message Friday in his return to Pickens County High School.
The boys basketball coach admitted he was tired after spending a week in Birmingham, Ala., working with his team to win a second state title in a row. But that didn''t mean Wallace was going to shy away from a challenge.
In fact, he embraced the idea of his Tornadoes winning a third state championship in as many years.
"We''ve got another big banner that has got to go right here," Wallace said pointing to a spot adjacent to the team''s Class 2A state title banner in the rafters of the gymnasium, "and hopefully we will get on down to there by the next year and we will have the whole gym surrounded with these banners."
Wallace was the final person to speak on a day in which the community celebrated its newly crowned champions. Pickens County''s 70-62 overtime victory against Cedar Bluff on Thursday in the Alabama High School Athletic Association Class 1A state title game secured the Tornadoes (30-1) the best season in school history. It also earned the team a pep rally in which the community welcomed the conquering players home.
"It was intensity," Pickens County junior Nick Stewart said. "The first playoff games we didn''t start off good, but we knew we had to start off good to beat this team because they start off great."
Wallace joked he had grown tired of looking at the red and white banners that charted Pickens County trips to the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight. If not for R.C. Hatch, which ended at least five seasons which Pickens County could have contended for a state title, the Tornadoes already would have had a title banner hanging on their walls.
Now that the Tornadoes have broken through, Wallace doesn''t see any reason to stop.
"Now that we have gotten one, we felt like we left a few back there," Wallace said. "Now we have two, and we''re just going to keep working for more.
"I don''t think you ever get tired of being a champion. If you ever get to the point where you are satisfied, you''re program is going to drop. We have kind of raised our program to a new level and a new bar has been set. Our goal from this point on is to win a state championship. If it is not, it means we''re taking a step backward."
Wallace knows he has a reputation for being long-winded. A year ago, he talked for an extended period that even made some of his players restless. He joked about that speech at the start of what was supposed to be a two-minute stint Friday. He clocked in at just under that mark, which prompted at least one fan in attendance to remark that was the shortest they had heard Wallace speak at one time. The fan attributed Wallace''s brevity to being tired.
The Tornadoes didn''t play tired in Birmingham, even if Wallace said the fans there didn''t see the Pickens County team that laid claim to being the state''s best with a host of victories against bigger schools. Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa''s 48-46 victory against Murphy on Saturday in the Class 6A title game might have locked up Pickens County''s hold on that de facto accomplishment.
Wallace said chemistry was the key. He said the Tornadoes played far from their best game Thursday but still found a way to re-focus after Cedar Bluff used a 3-pointer with 11 seconds to go in regulation to send the game into overtime.
The experience from last season''s triple-overtime state title victory against Houston County likely helped Pickens County. The free-throw shooting of Warren Betts also was crucial. Betts hit 6 of 6 in overtime to help seal the deal.
"Our kids came out and punched them right in the mouth again to start the overtime," Wallace said.
Stewart said the Tornadoes regained their intensity just in time to bring home the trophy.
"Our team just had to step it up," Stewart said. "We had an 11- or 12-point lead at the end of the first quarter and we kind of thought it was over with because the team that usually starts off good usually wins it. But Cedar Bluff is a good team and they made a run.
"We just said we need to step it up, force turnovers, and no more three overtimes."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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