E.A. Sports Today

‘That’s strong!’

In another promising turn for Pleasant Valley boys’ sports, the Raiders become back-to-back area basketball champions … this time at home.

Pleasant Valley, the 2024 Class 2A, Area 9 champion. (Photo by Joe Medley)

By Joe Medley
East Alabama Sports Today

PLEASANT VALLEY — Something’s happening in Pleasant Valley.

The boys’ cross country team broke through in 2018 for the school’s first team state title in boys’ sports. The football team made the 2023 playoffs, breaking a 13-year playoff drought.

Oh, and the boys’ basketball team just won back-to-back area titles for the first time in recent memory, beating Ranburne 52-33 as the top area seed and tournament host in Thursday’s Class 2A, Area 9 final.

Something’s happening, indeed, at a school known for girls’ sports successes, including the volleyball team’s 2023 Class 2A state title.

Something’s happening, and area-tourney most valuable player Braxton Salster struck crux with the same accuracy as his miraculous 3-point heave at Thursday’s first-quarter buzzer.

“It just shows that our boys’ sports are coming back,” said the freshman, also Pleasant Valley’s quarterback in football. “Nobody expected football to go to the playoffs. Nobody expects us in basketball to do anything, and baseball, we’re going to be there, too.”

For now, the boys’ basketball team has at least one more game to play. The Raiders will play host to North Sand Mountain in Saturday’s subregional round.

Tipoff is 6 p.m., and the winner advances to the Northeast Regional. Pleasant Valley’s boys last played in the Northeast Regional in 2001, their only Northeast Regional appearance.

The Raiders became back-to-back area champions a year after winning their first area title in 23 years. This year marks the first for the Raiders’ boys to both host and win since at least the early 1990s, Raiders coach Brad Hood said.

Hood has been a common thread in recent successes for Pleasant Valley’s boys. He coached the Raiders’ boys and girls to a combined three state titles in cross county, and he was the head man for both of the boys’ back-to-back area basketball titles.

He also did quite well coaching the girls’ basketball program before taking over the boys’ team four years ago. As for recent signs of progress in boys’ sports, Hood said he’s seen it coming.

The current freshman and sophomore groups, he said, have something akin to what White Plains boys’ basketball coach Chris Randall enjoys with his current, eight-member senior class.

“We could kind of see it coming with this group, even in youth ball,” Hood said. “It’s not so much that they’re athletic. They’re close.

“If you think about Randall’s eight seniors, like the bond that they have, like how they play for each other, that ninth- and 10th-grade group have a bond that’s amazing.”

Getting to this point with the team Hood put on the court Thursday had its challenges. Kyle Smith and Jesse Gannaway, the would-be top two returning players from last year, did not return. Gannaway starred for Jacksonville Christian this season, and Smith moved to Pensacola. 

Two other players quit, one to focus on another sport, Hood said.

Pleasant Valley’s current varsity team mixes remaining varsity players and junior-varsity players with battlefield promotions.

“I only have three kids off of my summer-camp team,” Hood said. “We dismantled our JV and turned it into a mixture of players for varsity, and the seniors have done a good job accepting that the young kids are taking minutes from them and maybe shining a little more than they are.

“They’ve learned that it’s not about them. It’s about the team.”  

Salster and sophomore Brody Barnwell led the way Thursday with 11 points apiece. Junior Hunter Sparks added nine and junior Noah Johnson six.

All four made the all-tournament team, and Salster’s night was a combination of flair and scare. 

Flair came at the end of the first quarter. As the clock wound down, he wound up with a loose ball, which he promptly heaved to the basket while falling out of bounds.

It went in.

“I knew there was,like, two seconds left, and I just grabbed it and threw it.” he said. “Then I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! It’s about to go in!’”

That shot put the Raiders up 17-10 at the quarter break and launched a 13-0 run that carried into the second quarter, as they built a 27-10 lead.

The scary part came in the third quarter. Fouled while going to the basket, Salster took a hard fall on his back. He fought the resulting lower-back pain long enough to shoot his free throws then took a break to work with a trainer.

“I was more worried about his head, because I thought his head hit the ground,” Hood said. “He’s a football guy. He’s been starting at quarterback since eighth grade, so a little fall on the gym floor?

“All he was saying was, ‘I have to shoot my free throws, coach.’”

Pleasant Valley’s lead had dwindled to 33-28 when Salster hit the floor, and that score stood at third quarter’s end. The Raiders scored the first 12 points of the fourth quarter to take control. 

“Strong!” Salster yelled from the sideline. “That’s strong!”

They were well on their way to cutting down their home nets.  

“I mean,” Salster said, “it just shows that we have a bright future coming.”

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