After watching “When the Garden was Eden” Tuesday night, I’m realizing THIS is that time at VCU and the city of Richmond.
I’ve been working for what’s now called Daily Press Media Group in some form since the summer of 1987, when I was an intern before my senior year at JMU. I’ve been full-time here since ’89, working in Newport News — where I was born. Two of my co-workers are David Teel and Dave Fairbank, who I’m sure you’ve seen at many VCU games. They are two of the best writers around!
My parents moved to the Richmond area when I was about 6. Because my dad worked at an S&L near the Coliseum, we lucked into tickets to the pro tennis tournament there. I was hooked, and I’ve played ever since. He also lucked into tickets to watch VCU when Gerald Henderson was playing — the first college hoops game I ever saw.
We found out about the Richmond tennis culture and didn’t realize how good it was until we were knee-deep in it. But I loved college hoops on TV, even when it wasn’t that popular around the country. My parents’ favorite Christmas present to me in the late ’70s and early ’80s was a ticket to the Times-Dispatch Invitational, where I could see VCU (coached by Chuck Noe or Dana Kirk), U.Va. (Terry Holland), Virginia Tech (Charlie Moir) and UR.
I saw a Lou Campanelli JMU team pull a mild upset of a J.D. Barnett Rams team when I was a 10th-grader. I realized JMU was one school I hadn’t checked out much, and I wanted to leave town to go to college. To make a long story short, I went to JMU and, for the most part, loved it.
My mom taught at Varina High — she still tutors kids therenow, even in her 70s — and because I was a serious tennis player, the Varina AD handed her the boys’ tennis coaching job before my 10th-grade year. She kept it long after I left.
When I could drive the hour back to Varina and it didn’t conflict with my oddball work schedule (my body clock is on something like Hawaiian time), I was a volunteer assistant. A guy named Ryan, who had barely played tennis, joined our team in 10th grade after being a cross country and middle-distance track runner, and he learned so much and was such an excellent athlete that he ended up getting to the Capital District singles semifinals. He and one of his buddies would stay with me and play men’s tournaments in Newport News. Then I lost track of that guy. But not for long, as you’ll soon find out.
When my mom blew out her knee and quit coaching Varina, around 2004 I think, I switched to Christopher Newport, where I’m still a volunteer assistant to this day. Less travel, better players.
I’m basically a historian of the CAA. I was coaching the CNU tennis team on spring break in Orlando when VCU played in one of those finals, so I taped it. And that’s when I saw who was directing the VCU pep band — that guy I had lost track of: Ryan Kopacsi!
As soon as I got back to Virginia, I looked him up. Long before the Stu sellout streak, I got to see the Rams whip Bobby Cremins and Charleston in the CBI en route to that title, and I told Ryan I’d be back as soon as I could! It’s not that often, just because of my work schedule — lots of nights, compiling information (including games from VCU and the state’s and region’s other teams).
Because of that, in 2011, I didn’t see the Rams play in person until Senior Day for Joey Rodriguez, Brandon Rozzell, Ed Nixon, Jamie Skeen et. al. I certainly was happy for JMU to win that day — I could see the game live because it started at noon, well before our deadline — but part of me thought VCU’s at-large hopes were done.
I tend to be off on Sundays and Mondays. Since it was a Sunday, I saw the 2011 CAA semis. I’ll remember that VCU didn’t win its quarterfinal vs. Drexel until a last-second shot by Jamie Skeen, and I was happy they rose to the occasion to beat No. 1 seed George Mason in the semis. (Meanwhile, JMU never won another game that year, unfortunately.)
If it wasn’t for Ryan and the Peppas, I’m not sure I would’ve tried so hard to see all of those games. The games are all on TV, but TV doesn’t do the Peppas justice, even if the game coverage is excellent.
So then, in the loudest I’d ever heard the Coliseum, VCU got way behind, rallied but lost to ODU in the CAA final. Great game, I thought. I went down to the court and told Ryan I’d do my darnedest to come to Siegel Center if they got an NIT home game. I believed that was the best they could do — I was expecting a No. 3 or 4 NIT seed and one home game.
You know what happened after that. Stunning NCAA bid, four wins. Then it got unforgettable.
I had just planned to watch VCU-Kansas at home until one of my JMU roommates, who lived in suburban D.C., convinced me that it would be worth going to Richmond to watch that game in a bar. (When we were in college, we went to a North Carolina-Maryland thanks to tickets from one of his high school friends, a long-haired guy named Scott Van Pelt. He’s now bald, as I’m sure you know.)
I wasn’t too optimistic about the outcome, just hoping the Rams could keep the deficit in single digits and get lucky in the last four minutes. But bedlam and Havoc ensued.
As you probably guessed, I’ve never been in a place that loud or enjoyed a game that much, and that includes when JMU won the I-AA national championship in football in 2004. I’ve never been so happy for the city of my formative years.
Especially given how social media was starting to expand in 2011, I was amazed at how many of my old and new friends were following that game. It’s hard to remember many details, given the noise, the excitement and the alcohol, but that was as good as it gets! It’s hard to imagine that happening again, but it’s clear Shaka will have that team competitive nationally for years. And isn’t it cool how after hearing people bust on the city of Richmond in my youth, this fan base enjoys it.
I know the history. I appreciate how rare and good this is. I hope everyone else does too! Hope to see y’all Sunday …