Raymond at a crossroads

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Raymond players surround a Vicksburg High girls basketball player in a 1998 game. The Lady Rangers finished second in the state in 1999 and won state titles in 2000 and 2001. Since then, the team has gone through three coaches and no titles. The overall athletic program at Raymond has seen a slip since its once-dominating form less than a decade ago. (File The Vicksburg Post)

[7/14/04]Ten years ago, Utica High closed its doors for the final time. Students were forced to find new schools and many made the short trip up Mississippi-18 to Raymond High.

The influx of students also meant a pipeline of athletic talent for the Rangers. It marked the beginning of an impressive era at Raymond that featured numerous division and state titles.

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Just five years ago, Raymond won its division in football, baseball, basketball, track, golf and even tennis. The only sport at the school that didn’t take home a title was softball.

But that line of success has ended. The titles stopped coming, along with the wins. The athletes and coaches left. The shimmer of the stars began to fade.

“The decline at Raymond involves a lot of things,” said former boys basketball coach Gary Post, who led the Rangers to a Class-3A state title in 1999. “The way I see it, Raymond had a good crop of athletes for a long time. There are so many things that contributed to where it is now.”

After years of dominance, Raymond now is faced with an athletic program that is quickly fading and struggling to reach mediocrity.

“We had a good group of kids. After all of them graduated, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis down at the lower levels on athletics, and I think it’s finally catching up to them a little bit,” said Vicksburg High girls basketball coach Mike Coleman, who coached at Raymond for five years before leaving after the 1998-99 season.

In his final season at Raymond, Coleman’s team finished 34-4 and finished second in the state to Yazoo County. The team then went on to win state championships in 2000 and 2001.

Since Coleman’s departure, the Rangers have gone through five girls basketball coaches in five years. And it’s much the same with other sports.

Kenny Granberry coached football at Raymond for 22 years, compiling a 169-73 record. He retired following the 1999 season, in which his team finished 9-3.

The next year, when Michael Fields took over, Raymond moved up to Class 4A and into one of the toughest divisions in Mississippi. In two seasons, Fields’ Rangers finished a combined 7-14 before he left for Hinds AHS.

Wes Slay then took over and led the Rangers to a 2-8 record in 2002. Last season, Raymond dropped back down to Class 3A, but still finished 2-8.

Slay then left after two seasons, paving the way for assistant Bill Fleming to take the reins.

“We’ve had a lot of turnover in the coaches, but we’ve replaced them with good people,” said former athletic director Eddie Pickle, who is returning to Terry High next season after a two-year tenure at Raymond. “It’s hard to maintain a program when you don’t have consistency.”

Fleming isn’t the only new head coach. Tommy Spillman takes over for Josh Reagan as the baseball coach next season, and Calvin Morgan replaces Wilbert Hamilton as the boys basketball coach.

Such a high turnover in coaching harms the athletes and the program, Fleming said.

“These kids are sitting here and they never know one year to the next who’s going to be here,” Fleming said.

So why is everyone leaving?

One reason both Coleman and Pickle pointed to was the lack of revenue and funds.

Pickle said Hinds County has no athletic budget to spend on the teams. Schools are forced to create their own revenue through fundraisers and ticket sales.

“It puts us in quite a pinch,” Pickle said. “We don’t have anything to work with except for gate fees at events. And we haven’t had particularly great fan support lately, so even those revenues are low.”

Coleman recalled his team having two jerseys, one pair of shorts and no team shoes. He also had to drive his own team bus to and from games.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when Coleman’s team was not allowed to practice in the gym during the summer of 1999 because it cost too much to turn on the lights.

“I always joked when I was there if somebody asked me what my budget was, I’d say, I think it’s two nets and a scorebook,'” Coleman said. “They just didn’t ever give us any money anyway. We struggled.”

Post, who coached at Raymond for nine years before retiring in 1999, said it wasn’t so much the money as the attitude that pushed coaches away.

“We had a great coaching staff, we really did,” Post recalled. “It just seemed like whether real or imagined sports is being de-emphasized at Raymond High School.”

Post felt like he and many other coaches were unappreciated by school administrators, he said.

“They did not see the value of what we had,” Post said. “When we complained about not having any budget or we complained about having too many classes, they had the attitude of, Well, we can just find somebody else.’ And that kind of hurts.”

Coleman also noted a lack of discipline in the classroom, where students often weren’t held accountable for their actions.

“To me, kids weren’t getting punished for what they did at school,” he said. “They’d do something and be back in class like five or 10 minutes later, basically laughing in your face.”

But changes are in the making, beginning with the new coaching staff, which faces a new era and new challenges.

Fleming said discipline has been the first thing he has stressed. From the opening of spring practice, he and his staff did not tolerate tardiness and unexcused absences.

If a player missed practice without a valid reason, he had to pull a large tractor tire up and down the football field as punishment.

“Now instead of our kids making doctor’s appointments at 3:30 so they can get out of practice, they’re telling their moms and dads, Hey, I’m not pulling the tire. I’m not missing practice. We’re going to schedule around it,'” said Fleming, who takes over after working as an assistant for two seasons. “There’s more dedication. For some workouts we’re having three or four times the number of kids we had last year show up.”

The biggest challenge facing Raymond is creating a clean slate to dispose of the culture of losing that has developed.

“If you do anything, you have to be committed to it, and you have to be positive about it,” said Fields, who led Hinds AHS to a 7-4 record last season, including a 23-6 win over Raymond. “If you lose a couple of games and you get negative about it, you’re going to keep losing. You have to stay positive and be committed to doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Fleming also thinks reshaping the players’ attitudes toward sports will go a long way to helping rebuild a once-proud program, and it all starts with the coaches.

“In the past couple of years, there’s been a lot of dissension among the coaches,” he said. “In the spring there was none, (the players) saw us as one, unified coaching staff. They saw us working together and having fun, so they started playing together and having fun.

“They saw that we were going to be disciplined, and they’re disciplined. I think that’s going to really carry over.”