Marion Dingle fondly recalls his days coaching high school basketball in Effingham County.
Dingle coached Central High for eight years, leading the boys team to the 1967 Georgia Interscholastic Association state championship and the girls squad to back-to-back state titles in 1962 and ’63. After the county’s schools were integrated, he coached Effingham County High for 10 seasons.
He thinks back to those teams as he intently watches this year’s Rebels from the front row of bleachers in the ECHS gym.
“I don’t miss a game,” he said.
He’s not alone in that. Dingle had plenty of company Wednesday night as a crowd packed the gym to watch both the Effingham County girls and boys teams advance to the Final Four with victories in the Class AAAAA quarterfinals.
“I love it. It’s great,” Dingle said of the standing-room-only crowd. “I like the enthusiasm and I think the coach is doing a great job. It just feels so good.”
Another diehard fan who wouldn’t have missed the games is Lamar Allen, a 1962 Effingham County High graduate. Allen played basketball in high school, but said it was never in front of a deafening crowd like the one he was part of Wednesday.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever had (an atmosphere) like this,” Allen said.
The ECHS boys team has played in front of big crowds all season while rolling to a 27-4 record and a No. 2 ranking in the state poll. Meanwhile, the crowds for the Lady Rebels (26-5) have been gradually building during their 14-game winning streak, and now they too are playing to a full house.
“What makes it so good is it’s for the boys and the girls,” Allen said. “The boys have been packing the gym for two years, just on regular games, and now the gym is packed for the girls, too.”
Effingham County has enjoyed homecourt advantage throughout the postseason, hosting the region tournament and the first three rounds of the state tournament. A total of roughly 10,000 people attended the school’s six girls/boys doubleheaders in the past two weeks.
The school brought in additional bleachers to accommodate the large crowds. Fans have been arriving so early, ECHS Principal Yancy Ford said, that the school has had to open the gates at 4:30 for doubleheaders starting at 6:30.
“High school is about community,” Ford said. “When you’re in an extra-curricular activity, at the high school level it’s all about bringing the community together — and that’s what this run has done. It’s brought Effingham County together, as you can see in the crowd.”
Also on the front row, a couple sections over from Coach Dingle, was the family of ECHS senior guard Ryan Wilkins. Unlike Dingle, though, Ryan’s father Jason didn’t spend much time sitting down.
Jason and his wife Tammy cheered as much as anyone, and not just because they were watching their son’s final home game. Jason has coached Ryan and several other Rebels players during the summer on their Amateur Athletic Union team.
“We’ve got a lot invested. It’s not just being a dad,” Jason Wilkins said. “And we’ve had a good time with it.”
The gym was already packed when the Lady Rebels’ game tipped off, but the crowd was a bit subdued early on. However, the noise built throughout the second half and to a roar in the fourth quarter as ECHS rallied for a 59-53 win over Thomas County Central.
“I think our fans pushed us over the top tonight,” said Lady Rebels head coach Curtis Stevens. “We were tired. Things weren’t going our way. But they really rallied behind us and helped us push through.”
Conversely, the crowd for the boys game was lively to start, but quieted a bit as the Rebels turned the game into a rout by halftime. The crowd erupted with about four minutes to play, though, as Jakeenan Gant threw down back-to-back dunks to put the exclamation point on the Rebels’ 84-52 victory over Creekside.
“Unbelievable,” Jason Wilkins said of the crowd. “Some colleges don’t have a crowd like this.”
Effingham County will not host any more games in the state tournament, but Ford expects a large contingent of Rebels supporters to travel to the state semifinals this Saturday at Kennesaw State University. Many fans went to the school Thursday to sign up to ride on chartered buses.
“We’ll be loading up and heading to Kennesaw State,” Ford said.
As it has been all season, the ECHS student section was packed Wednesday night. The senior class organizes a theme for each home game — Wednesday’s was beach attire — and gets the word out to the student body leading up to the game.
“It’s fun to be out here in an atmosphere like this in the Elite Eight anyway,” said ECHS senior Eric Knox, “but when you have supporters that are behind you, it pumps you up.”
A standout athlete himself as a pitcher and outfielder on the Rebels baseball team, Knox can appreciate the boost the players get from an enthusiastic crowd.
“It means a lot to be here,” Knox said, “to see my senior buddies doing well in a situation like this.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world."