Several hours had passed since the buzzer sounded at the Vines Center on the campus of Liberty University, signaling the end of the VHSL Group A state basketball finals.
The trophy had been collected, the pictures had been taken, the media interviews had been conducted and the postgame meal had been devoured, but the euphoria had not worn off for the Council Cobras on that St. Patrick’s Day in 2001.
As they crammed into a hotel room in Lynchburg, Virginia, members of the team sat up until the wee hours of the morning discussing the journey that had culminated in a 58-43 title-clinching win over the Radford Bobcats.
“Most of the team ended up staying in the same room, state championship trophy in hand, laying on a couch or the floor if a bed wasn’t available and just laughing and talking about anything and everything,” said Justin Wilson, a reserve on the squad. “It truly was a joyous moment and one I’ll never forget.”
Those folks who witnessed the Council Cobras 20 years ago will never forget the talented and tight-knit group that some people have called Southwest Virginia’s version of “Hoosiers.”
The Buchanan County school had an enrollment of 137 students at the time and most of Council’s playoff opponents probably couldn’t have told you where to find the community on a map.
“One of the teachers made a comment that someone asked what our population was,” Council principal Willie Sullivan told the Bristol Herald Courier’s Brian Woodson in 2001. “Well, if we make it to Lynchburg, just count the fans because they’ll all be there.”
Unlike those Hoosiers from the 1986 film – based on the true story of Indiana’s Milan miracle in 1954 – the crew from Council didn’t need a last-second shot or late-game dramatics to win the championship.
The Cobras cruised in their eight postseason games by scores of 88-51, 82-40, 84-37, 86-41, 63-42, 54-31, 70-47 and 58-43. They won their final 21 games of the season in finishing with a 27-2 record and on 14 different occasions that winter they won games by 30 points or more.
There was the splendid starting five of Ryan Rasnake, Jeremy Ratliff, Cass Harman, Brad Nuckles and Benji Jackson, who had played together nearly their entire lives and were pretty much like brothers.
It was a study in solidarity to see the Cobras crisply move the ball and run their offense to perfection.
“When we were at our peak that championship season, it was like we were all inside each other’s heads,” said Josh Tiller, the reliable sixth man that season. “We knew each other so well that we already knew what the others were going to do.”
Calling the shots was head coach Rick Goodman, a master tactician.
“Rick was the best in the business,” Ratliff said. “He’s very intelligent and his vision during the game was remarkable. His adjustments were always spot on.”
The Cobras possessed plenty of motivation as well, having dropped a 61-49 decision to New Kent in the 2000 Group A state title finals.
“We were extremely hungry,” Tiller said. “We felt after that game we had let all our fans down. And coming from the small community that we did, we knew how much our games meant to those people.”
Contests involving Council were usually standing room only events, especially when the Cobras played Black Diamond District rival Haysi. It was the area’s elite rivalry at the time.
“I remember we always had to play at Clinchco Elementary School because of seating,” said former Haysi standout Jordan Compton. “We were at school and coach Dave Sutherland told us the game was already sold out and there were no more tickets. He pulled us out of class around 2 p.m. and said we were dismissed to drive straight to Clinchco so we could park our cars. Fans were already there lining up.
“That team from Council was special and it was a community that lived to watch them play. It was always fun with our rivalry, but it mentally and physically was exhausting because of everything that went into it.”
Opponents probably lost some sleep the night before playing Council since slowing down the Cobras was such a tall task.
Castlewood dropped a 45-poing decision to the Cobras in the Region D semifinals as Nuckles finished with a triple-double – 32 points, 12 blocks and 10 rebounds.
“The highlight of that game for us was winning the jumpball,” said Grady Kring, a scoring machine for the Blue Devils that season. “It was all downhill from there. But it was fun watching a team from our region win a state championship.”
Nuckles, a 6-foot-9 junior at the time, gave everybody problems.
“Brad was in a class of his own, especially in Southwest Virginia,” Kring said. “A 6-9 guy that can bang down low, but also step out and stroke a 3 – you kidding me? Couldn’t stop him, you’d just hope he’d have a bad game. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen often.”
Nuckles finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds, six blocks and four assists in the state finals.
“If you took Brad away, they were still a really good team,” said Robby Colley, whose final season at Haysi was in 2002. “He was 6-9 and could shoot it from anywhere on the floor. He was a matchup nightmare, so you really had to pick your poison with him. If he was in the post, you had to try and double him, but then someone else would step up. It didn’t matter if you had a hand in his face or not. If he was able to get the ball ready to shoot, there was a good chance it was going in.”
His teammates still marvel at those highlight-reel moments produced by Nuckles.
“Brad was a phenomenal player,” Tiller said. “I really wish people now would go back and see just how good he was. It’s my personal opinion, but I believe Brad was about 10 years ahead of his time. It’s rare when you have a guy his height that was in shooting range as soon as he crossed halfcourt. He was also a more than capable ball-handler and passer.”
Ryan Rasnake was the team leader, a quiet and steady force who averaged 16.9 points per game in the postseason.
Ratliff was a lockdown defender who did his best work in the state finals, while Jackson, Harman, Tiller and the rest had their moments.
Who owned those two wins over Council that season?
They dropped a close contest to Tennessee High in the season-opener and those Vikings went 28-9 and reached the TSSAA Class AAA state tournament.
The other loss was a 57-50 setback at Shelby Valley, a Kentucky school that compiled a 27-3 record.
“The perfectionist in me is still bothered 20 years later by the two games that we lost that season,” Nuckles said. “We should’ve won both and had an undefeated season, but I guess it worked out for the best.”
The ascent to the top did not happen overnight.
Council won just 34 games in the entire decade of the 1980s, but brighter days were ahead.
Goodman, a former star at Whitewood High School, took over as head coach prior to the 1992-93 season and the team advanced to the state semifinals for the first time in 1996. He would go 254-79 at Council before it was all said and done.
The core group of that state title team began playing in youth tournaments near and far for years under the direction of coaches Dave Rasnake and Mike Nuckles and their arrival on the varsity level had been long-awaited.
They were soon Goodman’s group.
“Rick was one of the brightest offensive minds that I’ve seen personally come through Southwest Virginia or Northeast Tennessee,” Tiller said. “He did not have an enviable job when we moved from JV to varsity, because we had been coached since third grade by Dave. He had to find a way to fit in with us almost, because we were already such a cohesive unit and he was kind of like the odd man out. Until he got to know us and how we played and everything kind of took off from there.”
As good as Goodman was with the intricacies of the game, he also knew the psychological makeup of every player on his roister.
“Besides leading a good program by organizing camps, doing his homework with scouting other teams, having a great playbook and running successful practices, he really knew how to get the most out of his players,” Wilson said. “He could be extra tough on his reserves in practice sometimes, things that really cut. But he knew that he needed to push those buttons to get the most out of us to challenge the starters or prepare us for game-time situations. Rick did a lot for me as well for the rest of the team.”
Goodman was at his strategic best in the state finals against Radford, the Region C champions and a squad led by two future NCAA Division I players. Darris Nichols later played at West Virginia University, while Shane Nichols was eventually an All-Southern Conference performer at Wofford.
Council never trailed.
“How he was able to manage his timeouts during that state title game with us still amazes me,” said Rick Cormany, Radford’s coach then and now. “We could just not seem to get the game at the pace we needed. They controlled the tempo of the game and he was able to manage the clock and keep his players from wearing down against our pressure. Plus, his defensive scheme against Shane and Darris Nichols was outstanding.
“Nuckles hurt us more defensively than he did offensively because he just changed so many shots and forced us to be a completely perimeter team. So, they took shots away from Shane Nichols, we couldn’t go inside and we couldn’t turn them over or wear them down. Just a great gameplan by a great coach that had a great group of kids who were totally bought in.”
The Cobras jumped out to a 9-0 lead against Radford and never let up as that long-awaited championship was finally theirs.
“The previous year against New Kent, most of us were only sophomores so it was like nothing but big eyes and butterflies for us,” Tiller said. “I think against Radford, confidence was the biggest factor.”
Council returned to the state semifinals the following season with Nuckles leading the way, but there would be no repeat.
Nuckles scored 1,001 career points and played in two NCAA tournaments at East Tennessee State and played one season professionally in Australia. He now lives in Roanoke, Virginia, working as financial advisor and is married with two sons, ages 3 and 1.
They’ll certainly hear about the basketball exploits of their dad one day, like that night in Lynchburg when the Council Cobras became the King Cobras.
Hard to believe it’s been that long?
“Absolutely,” Nuckles said. “I’m thankful that we are forever listed in the history books as champions.”
Feb. 12, 1965
Larry Norris (23 points, 10 rebounds) led the way in Erwin’s 64-53 triumph over Tennessee High. Larry Weddington had 13 points and 11 boards for THS. … The trio of Jimmy Nelson (24 points), Danny Reynolds (20 points) and Royce Stidham (19 points) helped Pound post a 71-64 win over Gate City. … Rollen Ross scored 17 points as Douglass rolled to a 92-62 victory over George Clem of Greeneville.
Feb. 14, 1975
Doc Adams scored 20 points in Castlewood’s 75-73 victory over Honaker. … Steve Rutledge’s 27 points and Sam Moody’s 23 points helped Sullivan Central overpower Unicoi County, 74-44. … John Battle received 17 points from Ronnie Mullins in a 60-47 win over Grundy.
Feb. 12, 1982
Chuck White and Rick Mowdy scored 16 points apiece in Sullivan Central’s 64-58 triumph over Tennessee High. … Eddie Stout scored 16 points in Patrick Henry’s 67-50 trumping of Tazewell. … Clarence Hanley (30 points) starred in Marion’s 81-63 victory over Virginia High.
Feb. 11, 1994
Steve Swift scored 25 points in Sullivan Central’s 83-79 vanquishing of Volunteer. … Jay Gray scored 24 points and Brandon Banks converted the go-ahead layup as Graham recorded a 74-73 victory over Richlands. … Thomas Jones tossed in 17 points as Powell Valley posted a 71-43 win over Pound.
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