RICHLANDS, Va. – Fred Phillips was placed in the center of a Tornado this past summer.
As Richlands basketball fans were savoring the thought of watching a group of basketball prodigies dubbed the “Dream Team,” Richlands head coach Jody Fuller and Phillips, his assistant, were suddenly fired by the Tazewell County School Board in mid-May.
“It was a crazy circumstance, and I’m still not aware of everything that went on,” Phillips said. “I was just informed that Coach Fuller and I were let go and that we both could apply for the job as head coach.”
Phillips did just that. And nearly one month later, he was hired as the boss of the Richlands Blue Tornado.
It was time to start over.
“I got the job around July 16,” Phillips said. “All the camps for Virginia High School League teams are in June, so that made it tough on us.”
When Richlands dropped its opening game at Auburn on Dec. 11, the Tornado fan base began to rumble.
Phillips didn’t blink an eye or flinch an inch. Instead, he clung to the dogged approach that made him successful as a player.
“People have doubted me ever since high school, but I just kept plugging along and defying the so-called odds,” he said.
Flash forward to Feb. 15.
With a flexible playing style featuring two five-man platoons and a battle-tested corps of sharp-shooters, Richlands has a 14-4 mark entering the conference tournament.
The doubters have been silenced and the Richlands Middle School gym has been packed for home games.
“We got off to a slow start because the football team went so far in the playoffs,” Phillips said. “Football is big in our community, but we had 20-25 kids counting middle school and junior varsity players working out in the gym this fall.”
Phillips said he was only able to get two practices with a complete team before that 66-61 setback at Auburn.
Richlands then clicked off seven straight wins before falling, 72-62, at Graham. The only other losses have been against Union.
“I’ve heard people calling this group of kids the `Dream Team,’” Phillips said. “There are high expectations here, but I’m accustomed to dealing with expectations.”
The Tornado began to form in the third grade when a tireless group of kids first sprinted across a basketball floor. Those self-admitted gym rats soon embarked on an ambitious schedule of AAU and travel ball. The dreams were ambitious and the work load was heavy.
“These young men have seen a lot of things and have had their fair share of success,” Phillips said.
AAU games and travel ball tournaments played in mostly empty gyms are vital for experience and exposure to college coaches, yet those sessions cannot compare to the frenzied atmosphere for games at Richlands Middle School and beyond.
Just ask Luke Phillips, a 6-foot-5 junior and the son of the head coach.
“Fans like to win here in every sport,” Luke said.
The Richland’s version of “The Fab Five” includes Phillips, 6-5 Scottie Ball, 6-2 Ethan Ratliff, 6-5 Landon Lowe and 6-foot Cody Fuller, the son of Jody Fuller. Each of those five juniors are three-year starters, but Lowe was slowed by injuries as a freshman.
Phillips (15.4 points per game), Fuller (14.1 ppg.) and Ball (13.5 ppg.) currently average in double figures.
Senior Will Moir saw regular time at point guard until suffering a broken nose in a Jan. 29 game.
With crisp ball movement and smart defense, the Blues compete with a savvy beyond their years. According to Luke Phillips, Richlands aced the chemistry test long ago.
“We have a bond and a strong love between us that’s hard to explain,” said Phillips, who passed the 1,000 point mark in a Feb. 11 win at Abingdon. “We’re just like brothers, and I think we play that way. None of us are selfish.”
One of the attractions of summer tournaments in basketball, showcase camps in baseball and 7-on-7 games in football, is to expose kids to bigger, strong and quicker athletes. Over time, an alpha male emerges to guide the pack.
“We’ve traveled everywhere and went through everything, from tournaments in Hampton, Virginia, Hershey, Pennsylvania and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to Boone, North Carolina and Gatlinburg, Tennessee,” Luke Phillips said. “Each trip helped.”
The high school initiation process began early for the current Richlands juniors. As they adjusted to the quicker pace, the Blues posted a 9-13 record in the ninth grade.
“It was a tough year, but it made us better in the long run,” Ratliff said.
Ratliff said the coaching transition was made easier by the friendship that Coach Phillips worked to nurture with his players.
“I’ve known Fred my whole life, and he’s always supported us on and off the court. That made things a lot easier,” Ratliff said.
Fuller is a graduate of Richlands High School. He replaced Jimmy McGee as the head coach of Blue Tornado and served four years in that role while also operating Claypool Hill Pharmacy.
Along with his wife, Coach Fuller labored behind the scenes to arrange youth tournaments, schedule summer camps, establish fundraisers and work the concession stands during his 15-year association with the program.
While the town was divided, Ratliff said she Blues remain focused on the bottom line.
“We just wanted to play,” he said.
Junior MacKenzie Smith said the Blues relied on each other through the turbulent off-season.
“Just being around each other helps,” Smith said. “We’ve been playing together for so long that we’re just like brothers. I look up to Coach Phillips and would do anything I could for him.”
As the son of the first-year Richlands head coach, Luke Phillips knows something about pressure and scrutiny. The Fuller family faced the same dilemma the past two seasons.
“It’s tough sometimes,” Phillips said. “My father is a little harder on me, but our disagreements on the basketball court never carry over to the house.”
Luke Phillips said he doesn’t get swept up in the “Dream Team” moniker.
“That’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “We just have to go out and try our best every game for the community, and hopefully the crowds will be supportive for us.”
With 27 years of coaching experience at various levels, the 50-year-old Phillips said he has paid his dues.
“I taught in Richlands from 1989-2000, and I’ve coached everything here except wrestling and boys tennis,” Phillips said. “I was the first soccer coach at Richlands, I was an assistant in football under coach Dennis Vaught, and I coached girls basketball from around 1994-99.”
During long road trips or after heart-wrenching losses, Coach Phillips is able to draw off from a deep reservoir of motivation.
“My family was kind of poor,” he said. “I grew up with five brothers and sisters. My parents didn’t see me play in high school, but mom worked night shift at a sewing factory in downtown Richlands and she was able to come to the gym during her lunch break for my Senior Night.
“Everybody has their sad stories, but it’s what you do with your life that counts.”
After scoring over 1,100 points before the 3-point line was introduced, Phillips earned National Little College Athletic Association All-American honors at Bluefield College. He then embarked on a nine-month stint playing semi-pro basketball in Moscow, Russia, Stockholm Sweden, and Oslo, Norway.
“Basketball was about the only way I could have gone to college, so the sport has been really good to me,” Phillips said. “After my knee gave out, I was able to get a job teaching at Richlands Elementary and coaching at the high school. I also married my high school sweetheart, who was a cheerleader when I played here. It’s been a complete circle.”
The next goal for Richlands is to turn the Tornado into a traditional hoops power. The Blues went 10-15 last season against a challenging schedule, but Richlands has never won a regional boys basketball tournament game in program history.
“We want to have success here in basketball just like the football team does each year, but it’s a process,” Phillips said. “You just can’t come in and win every game. You’ve got to install your system and stick to what you believe.”
After the summer of discontent, Phillips said he’s prepared to handle the Tornado and manage the bold dreams of his talented team.
“It’s been a fast-paced year so far, but I love basketball and the sport has been good to me,” Phillips said. “The game got me out of Richlands and brought me back to Richlands.”