Tue09162014

Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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Gym home to 102 years of memories

Today, the facility sits silently behind fences and yellow tape.

It’s a far cry from the raucous scenes that played out for 102 years of Drifters’ pride that occurred at the former Colonial Beach High School.

Retired Drifters’ coaches and sports icons Steve Swope and Wayne Kennedy spend their professional lives at the school. Their dedication to the Drifters’ sports programs has resulted in numerous championships, as well as basketball battles that still are the center of conversation among high school historians to this day.

As a student, teacher and coach, Swope remembers the unique distinction of playing in the “Cracker Box.”

Those memories are even more evocative since the school was damaged by fire Jan. 5.

“Nobody wanted to play us in there,” he said. “We had our own distinct home-court advantage. It had a huge psychological effect on the opposition.”

The first thing visiting teams noticed was the close proximity of the fans and the court.

“We would have a row of chairs on the one side, with 30-35 fans with their feet on the floor,” Swope said. “On the other side of the gym there were two teams, with a little table, where the scorer and clock-keeper sat.”

An unusual setting

With the game officials attempting to find a safe place to call the game away from the chants of screaming fans, and the cheerleaders battling for a place to cheer on the home team, the atmosphere soon would reach a state of pandemonium.
Another unique aspect of the “Cracker Box” was the wooden backboards.

“With our wooden backboards, people who sat on the stage could see the shot, but could not tell if the shot was made, until the ball came through the net at the bottom of the wooden backboard,” Swope said.

As a coach it was the best of times for Kennedy. He instilled character and a strong sense of school pride during his tenure.
“When we played Riverdale Baptist, they had a 37-game winning streak, and they were the defending Christian National Champions,” Kennedy said. “We shocked the community as we beat them 82-68. Their coach told me after the game, ‘I believe you-all could have beaten the Celtics in there tonight. I’ve never seen anything like that.’ ”

The Drifters were known for having little depth and their backs up against the wall.

“One night, we had only two subs during a game against Bowling Green (today known as Caroline High School), but we beat them 119-68.”

Kennedy remembers telling a rival coach the gym was likened to having lightning in a bottle. Kennedy’s mantra was playing tight defense.

The team’s motto was “pick them up at the town limits, when you come in, and turn them loose at the 7-11, and they better not have a uniform on when you get through with them. Also, I want to know what flavor gum they are chewing,” he said.

Home-court advantage

When Kennedy arrived in 1968 as the boys’ basketball coach, the Drifters had not beaten Washington & Lee in six years. During Kennedy’s first season, the Eagles overwhelmed the home-standing Drifters with an overpowering offense.

“I told the principal after the game that we have to get more home games here,” Kennedy said.

During the following year, the Drifters split with the Eagles — losing the first game, but decisively winning the second game, 68-58.
“John Anderson, the Colonial Beach police chief, and my players took me in the bathroom after game, and threw me in the shower with my clothes on,” Kennedy said. “Afterward, they led a parade around The Point. Years later, Swope would continue the tradition of celebrating major victories with a trip to The Point.”

During Kennedy’s initial years as the boys’ basketball coach, he frequently told then principal Bernard Burchell of the need for a new gym.

“If we’re going to get a new gym, we have to use this one so people can tell how much we need one,” Kennedy said. “I told the principal not to get upset with me, but to build a program, you have to have a home base, no matter how small.”

In order for the Drifters to compete on a high level inside the small quarters of the “Cracker Box,” they needed a hard lesson in the rigors of physical fitness.

“I would cram the players in my car, and drive to Oak Grove,” Kennedy said. “I would drive down to Bowie’s Restaurant and let them out in sweats and hoodies. Afterwards, they would run from Bowies back to the Oak Grove gymnasium.”

Kennedy later explained to the principal that he wasn’t trying to kill the players, but get them in shape to play in the “Cracker Box.”
During Kennedy’s reign as the Drifters’ basketball coach, they defeated the 1970 King George High School  basketball team that eventually won the state championship.

With more than 1,000 wins under his belt in the combined sports of baseball and basketball, Swope fondly remembers the positive impact the “Cracker Box” has made on kids who went on to become stars. From TT Carey to Torrey Smith, the gym had a knack for attracting some of the best athletes in the area.

“I often pinch myself when I realize how lucky I was to have made a positive impact on the quality set of people that I had privilege of teaching and coaching,” Swope said.

In 2009, Swope did the unthinkable by winning the VHSL Division 1, Group A State Championship. It was a huge victory for the fifth-smallest high school in the state, with just 230 students.

“I was talking to a lot of people who came through the ‘Cracker Box,’ ” Swope said. “It’s clear now that foundation for our state basketball championship was the Cracker Box.”

The fate of the “Cracker Box” and the rest of the old school’s facilities are unclear. For now, the dwelling’s only significance are its lasting memories.

Leonard Banks

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