If you would have told me at the beginning on the season that the Lynchburg-Clay Mustangs boys basketball team would be playing in the Final Four I may have chuckled just a little bit. And yet, here they are. On Thursday morning the Mustangs will step foot inside the Jerome Schottenstein Center located on the campus of The Ohio State University to play against one of the other three teams left in the tournament.
Now, when I said I would have chuckled, it wasn’t that I thought Lynchburg was a bad team. Quite the opposite. The Mustangs are and were chalked full of talent and athleticism. But last year that was all they had. This team had all the best gears you could want in a machine, but they were all turning separately. That is why they were knocked out in the very first round of the tournament last year, losing to Wheelersburg 52-48 and ending the season with a 12-10 record.
Being a Lynchburg-Clay graduate, I’ve known most of these guys since they were playing elementary school basketball. Over the summer, I started to hear some rumblings that the Lynchburg boys had a different looking team coming into this season. I knew that basically the whole same roster was returning from the year before, so obviously I was intrigued.
I saw the Mustangs play in the Highland County Shootout before the season started and there before my very eyes was the same exact group of guys, but with one huge difference: all those talented gears were synced up and running smoothly as a well-oiled machine. It was like watching a totally different basketball team. So, I began to wonder how this sudden of a change could happen. What caused the change was head coach Matt Carson and a group of guys who truly bought in to what their coach was trying to sell them.
After the less than glamorous season last year, Carson, as a head coach will do, started to look for things to inspire his team. He knew that this wasn’t the best that this group could do. He knew that there was something special in them. He just had to find a way to bring it out. As Carson was looking around, he came across an article about Western Michigan football coach P.J Fleck on one phrase that he instilled in his players.
Row the Boat.
What does that mean exactly? Well, if you’ve ever been in a boat that you actually have to row with more than one person it, you know that you can’t row however you like and the boat go where you want it to. The rows have to be in-sync for the boat to go in the direction you want it to go. That was where the Lynchburg Mustangs were at. They had a team of great rowers, but everyone was doing their own thing and the boat was doing circles in the middle of the water. Carson told his guys that they needed to become more of a team. More of a family. Hold each other accountable and play together as one.
The Mustangs decided to put that into action over the summer and came into the season with “Row the Boat” in mind.
When the season finally started the first game on the schedule was one against a formidable Miami Trace team. Looking completely different than the year before, the Mustangs played as one and defeated the Panthers 79-70 in overtime.
And then they won again. And again. And again. Over and over, the Mustangs won. They started to see that there was something to this. Next thing you know the team was carrying around an oar with them with the words “Row the Boat” on it.
By the end of the season, the Mustangs were 19-2, league champions, and the oar made it to every game. But their real test was right around the corner. As the Mustangs entered the tournament, they made it past their first opponent, McDermott Northwest, with ease, 56-36. They followed that up by beating the team that gave them one of their regular season losses in North Adams, 70-51.
Then, on Feb., 28, the Mustangs entered the Convocation Center at Ohio University facing the same team that ended their season the year before, Wheelersburg. But unlike the end of 2015, the Mustangs rowed right through their opponents 64-48 to move on. Then they defeated Fairland for a district title. Then it was on to Chesapeake, who they defeated in overtime to take them to their most recent game against Marion Pleasant in the regional finals, who they beat on Saturday 68-50 to move into the Final Four.
This huge run started with one simple phrase: Row the Boat. Three little words with so big a meaning behind them. And now the Mustangs have rowed themselves to a chance to make school history.
I can’t help but feel just a little giddy inside as I watch my alma mater make this amazing tournament run with guys that I’ve known for years. Some of them even came to Lynchburg’s Mustang Camp when I was playing basketball. But what really amazes me is the support of the community behind this team. Saturday night at the Convocation Center, the crowd was absolutely deafening and the whole half of the arena was blacked out with Mustang fans in the black shirts. At the end of the game, hundreds of Lynchburg fans got to their feet and started chanting a phrase.
Row the Boat.
Three little words found while searching for team inspiration have done not only that, but inspired a whole community to rally behind its sports team. This is what high school sports is all about.
I recently saw a Facebook post by a mother of a Lynchburg student who is not involved in sports complaining that this is “just a game” and that school shouldn’t be cancelled for just a game, like it is on Thursday. I had this column all ready to go before I saw that and I felt the need to make my comment.
This is much more than a game. I could maybe see a complaint if they canceled for the first round, but this is the Final Four. This is a team representing a little country school from the middle of nowhere that has fought and battled all year to make it to where they are. They are representing the community of Lynchburg. I feel like if you have any sense of pride in your community that this “game” is way more than just that. From what I hear, there wouldn’t even be enough people in attendance that day for it even to count if school was in session. People from other schools are going to be skipping just to go up to this game and support this team. They are representing Lynchburg, the Southern Hills Athletic Conference and, really, Highland County as a whole. One day of school for a lifetime of memories and a huge accolade for a school. I feel like that is a very small trade off.
So if you have some free time Thursday morning and don’t mind a little drive up to Columbus, I encourage you to make the trip to go watch this team play. Win or lose, the Mustangs will be rowing their boat together with Matt Carson jumping up and down on the sidelines. Either way, these Mustangs have done something special. Go Mustangs!
Reach Robert Stegbauer at 937-393-3456 ext. 1679 or on Twitter @RStegbauer.