Twenty-three years ago a group of Lynchburg-Clay Mustangs went on a tournament run that led to the school’s only appearance in the state basketball tournament. Now a new generation of Mustangs are one win on Saturday from matching that feat.
There are similarities and differences between both Lynchburg teams, and blood lines that run through it all.
Mark Pierson was the assistant varsity coach on the 1992-93 team. His son, Devin, is a starting guard on this year’s team and it’s leading scorer.
Jason McLaughlin played on the 1992-93 team. His son, Eric, is a starting forward on this year’s team.
“Little” Ernie Blankenship’s late father, Ernie Blankenship, announced all those 1992-93 L-C tournament games on local radio. “Little” Ernie’s son, Zach, is the starting point guard on this year’s team.
Mark Pierson said that not a lot of people expected this year’s team to make this deep of a tournament run, while the opposite was true of the 1992-93 team. He said both teams were deep and liked to get up and down the floor.
“I think this year’s team may be a little more athletic and far as jumping ability and overall speed,” said Mark Pierson, who was also the head boys coach at L-C for six years and a state track champion during his school years. “I think it would be a very good game to watch. The ‘93 team had maybe a little better outside shooting, but this year’s team may more have more kids that can step outside and knock down a shot.”
The tale of the tape will be determined Saturday when Lynchburg-Clay (24-2) faces off against Marion Pleasant (16-11) in a Division III regional championship game at Ohio University’s Convocation Center in Athens. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. and the winner advances to the state tournament.
Lynchburg coach Matt Carson said the Marion Spartans like to get the ball up and down the floor and play a lot of man-to-man defense. He said senior forward Nico Sansotto, the team’s leading scoring at 17.6 points per game, is the catalyst. Carson said Marion has a couple other good shooters and spreads the ball around well.
“We’re very similar teams on paper,” Carson said. “At this level it’s always going to be a dog fight and I don’t expect anything other than that.”
The three fathers with links to both teams said watching their sons in such pressure packed games has been an experience they will not soon forget.
“Let me tell you, it’s a lot more nerve-wracking to be a spectator than a player,” said Jason McLaughlin, who also coached the Mustangs for five years ending with the 2012-13 season. “As a player you just go and play and don’t get caught up in the cheering and all that stuff. It’s been a lot of fun to watch.”
“Little” Ernie Blankenship said said it’s been a magical season.
“It’s been really neat to experience it with him,” he said of his son. “Watching your kid work hard and practice and everything, and then to see it pay off, especially his senior season, it’s pretty neat.”
“Little” Ernie, a Hillsboro native and state golf runner-up during his playing days, spent much of his childhood taking trips with his dad to ball games in Athens and all over the southern half of Ohio. He said each time he’s drove to Athens this year, he’s thought of those trips with his dad.
“I first remember those Hillsboro teams with the Cumberlands and the Prices, Jackson and all those guys, dad announcing, and being part of a community that just took ownership of a team,” he said. “And now seeing the same thing at Lynchburg, it’s really special.”
With the scored tied near the end of regulation in Lynchburg’s 53-48 regional semifinal win over Chesapeake and time running out, the Panthers got a breakaway and had an open layup with Eric McLaughlin right on the Chesapeake player’s heels. It looked like the Mustangs’ magical ride might be over, but the ball rolled off the rim and the game went to overtime.
“I have to think that dad had something to do with that kid missing a wide open layup,” “Little” Ernie said.
Then with 38 seconds left in overtime, Zach Blankenship stepped to the line with his Mustangs clinging to a one-point lead.
“I was hoping Pop would help his grandson knock them down. He knocked them down,” “Little” Ernie said.
Mark Pierson said it’s been a lot different watching from the stands than when he was helping Joe Wills coach the 1992-93 team.
“Being on the bench I could have a little input. Joe was an excellent coach and we were good friends and I could say anything. Sometimes he’d listened and sometimes he didn’t, which was fine, but I could kind of make an impact,” Mark said. “Now, being in the crowd might be a little more nerve-wracking, but in a way it’s a lot more relaxing watching from afar.”
“Little” Ernie said it can nerve-wracking watching your child play at such a high level because all parents want to see their kids succeed. But he said that whether they fail or succeed, at the end of the day all you really need to do hug them.
The last time the Mustangs went to the state, “Little” Ernie didn’t get go. He was listening to his dad on the radio in the delivery room while the first of his five children, Hannah, was being born.
“We’ve talked about it being destined,” “Little” Ernie said. “McLauglin and his kid, my kid, Pierson coaching the other team and now he has a kid on the team. I’m hoping there’s a little magic left.”
Asked what kind of advice they’d give the 2015-16 Mustangs heading into Saturday’s regional title game, all three dads answered pretty much the same.
“Just take it one game, one play at a time, and don’t get caught up in the hype of trying to go to the state,” Jason McLaughlin said. “Just win one more game.”
“Little” Ernie said the Mustangs should have fun and enjoy the moment.
“One thing neat about these kids is that they’re really resilient. They don’t seem to get down or rattled,” he said. “There’s nothing better than seeing a team with a smile on their face and a determination to win. That’s what I tell my kid.”
Carson his team needs to do everything it’s been doing since practice started in November – guard the basketball, rebound, contest shots, share the ball, make hustle plays, be confident, and know they belong where they’re at.
“I believe you just do what you do,” Pierson said. “Don’t change what you’re good at. Don’t outthink yourself. You may make an adjustment here or there on the fly, but you are who you are so just go out and play on your instincts. Just go out and play well and let the chips fall where they may.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.