Sunday, 09 August 2020 20:28

Why the Raider Nation family is the best there is

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On Monday, I will be reunited with my Richmond County Ninth Grade Academy family for the first time since the middle of March.

As teacher workdays are set to begin for what is undoubtedly an unprecedented start to the 2020-2021 school year, I can’t help but think of the importance of the word “family.”

It’s hard to believe, but this will be the start of my sixth school year with Richmond County Schools. One thing I’ve learned since moving to North Carolina is that the sense of family, which we may often take for granted, is the glue that holds our community together.

And right now, that bond of being a family needs to be stronger than ever.

Like most people, I have several “families.” My wife and I have been blessed to become a part of the families of RCS and the schools where we teach, but also through different avenues in the community.

Of course one of my biggest families is the Richmond Senior High School athletics department. For three years, I’ve been accepted by hundreds of members of such a unique and loving sports town. It’s that Raider Magic we so often hear about on Friday nights and at all the other sporting venues across campus.

I created this column to share some of the behind-the-scenes stories I’ve encountered as Richmond County’s sports editor. This week, I’d like to spotlight how great the Richmond athletics community has been to be these last three years.

To go back to the 2017-2018 school year, I was as green of a sports journalist (in Richmond County) as the kelly green jerseys worn by Richmond’s athletes. 

I was coming in at a time of transition that saw Bryan Till hired as the new football coach, the volleyball team went a never-before-seen 25-0, Bennie Howard was closing his illustrious 30-year coaching career and Donald Pettigrew took over his old high school team as the new boys’ basketball coach.

I’ve always felt welcomed on any field or court at Richmond, by both players and coaches. And as a matter of fact, as the years have progressed, I’ve begun to feel more and more like a member of each program. That’s a major plus of covering a small-town sports community.

However, the first team to really take that level of comfortability and family to the next step was the 2018 Richmond softball team. 

Growing up, I knew very little about softball. I don’t have sisters, so there was no reason to pay much attention to it. As a baseball player, I knew it as the counterpart to the sport I loved. Then I met the 2018 Lady Raiders and head coach Wendy Wallace, and my whole perspective changed.

The team that year was loaded, and from start to finish, the goal was always a 4A state championship. 

Owen Bowers, Bri Baysek and Kenzie Webb highlighted the senior class; Savannah Lampley, Taylor Parrish and Greyson Way were big hitters and defensive staples as juniors; and Paige Ransom had a breakout year by setting the team’s freshman record in homeruns.

I still get goosebumps thinking about how lucky I was to cover such a talented team. There were so many team records broken that spring that it’d be boring to repeat them.

One of the first times I sat down with Wallace was just after a pre-season workout. We sat at a picnic table behind the backstop and we talked for close to half an hour for my pre-season feature. I’d heard how great of a program the Lady Raiders were, so I tried to soak in as much as possible.

What I didn’t expect, at the time, was to be welcomed so quickly into the team’s culture, its dugout and the intense family atmosphere it generated.

I have so many stories from that spring, and the subsequent seasons, that I could share. Like how Coach Wallace invited me to take ground balls with the team, or how the players always chatted through the fence with me when I was taking game photos or writing my notes.

There was the time I got to step in the box and face Way’s fastball after the team won its sixth-straight conference title over Scotland. For the record, I did send one in the right-center gap, and I’m proud to say I got a legitimate hit off the state’s 4A strikeout leader.

The Richmond softball family extends way beyond the field and the dugout, and I was soon shown that. For instance, the Lampley family made sure that my wife Jordyn and I fit into the community as best we could.

During Hurricane Florence in Sept. 2018, Danny and Angela Lampley opened their doors and let us stay with them when our power went out and we had trees down. As a non-native to Richmond County, I thought ‘who does this and not ask for anything in return.’

The past two Thanksgivings, while I stayed in Richmond County to cover the 4AA football playoffs instead of going home to my family, the Lampleys had us over for dinner like we were actual members of the family.

And there are countless other memories I have where I felt like I was an unofficial team member. Sitting with parents and grandparents in the stands, trading scorebook information with Mica Way (Greyson’s mom), cheering a walk-off homerun against Jack Britt along the left-field line, and celebrating “National Newspersons Day” with an annual photo.

The family tradition continues today with all of the sports at Richmond I cover. On Friday nights, I feel more and more at home at Raider games when I walk through the crowd and shake hands and talk to parents, students and influential members in our community.

At soccer games, the moms really know how to treat you with southern hospitality, even if I don’t stay around the whole time. Dr. Wendy Jordan is the best at knowing your favorite type of candy and picking the perfect time to give you a much-needed pick-me-up. The Larsens have become great friends of ours, and Chris Larsen can literally fix anything you ask him to help with.

Coach Till is one of the best mentors I have as a growing professional. He’s a lot like the older brother I never had. Yes, our meetings always start out by talking football, but they often end with him giving me advice, talking me through problems or just being another educator to bounce ideas off of.

Volleyball, baseball, basketball, golf, tennis, cheerleading, wrestling, swimming  — every program at Richmond has made me feel at home and a member of their unique Raider family.

I could write all night about the Raider Nation family and how much it means to me. As an educator and a sports journalist, it’s my job to serve the needs of our children and student-athletes. 

But it’s become so much bigger than that, and I have no words to express my gratitude for getting the chance to live my dream and be so accepted at the same time.

It doesn’t matter your race, your background, your socioeconomic status — what matters is our shared love of Richmond green and gold. And using that as our driving force, we will always be a family, especially when times are tough.

Kyle Pillar is the three-time award-winning sports editor for the Richmond Observer. Read his column “Sunday Night Writes” every Sunday as he recalls some of his favorite moments on and off the field of his coverage of Richmond Senior High School athletics.

Last modified on Sunday, 09 August 2020 20:44

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Kyle Pillar

Three-time award-winning sports editor. Indiana University of Pennsylvania communications media and journalism alumni. English teacher, Ninth Grade Academy.

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