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Father and son share Raider championship bond
When the NJCAA men’s basketball national championship game ended last March and the Northwest Florida State College Raiders had capped their title run with an 83-80 win over South Plains, Texas – their second national championship in school history – Athletic Director Ramsey Ross found his father and embraced him.
It was a heartfelt gesture between father and son, a single moment bridging two decades.
Twenty years earlier, Ray Ross had been on the Raiders’ bench as an assistant coach in the very same gym in Hutchinson, Kansas, when Okaloosa-Walton Community College, as the school was known then, captured the 1995 national championship.
“The fact we were able to relive this is truly special,” Ramsey said. “It was special for me because Dad was there. Being able to give him a big hug after we won is something I’ll always cherish.”
There was no question Ray would be in Hutchinson to watch the Raiders compete in the NJCAA tournament. He has been part of the Raiders basketball program almost since its inception, serving as the second head basketball coach in school history from 1969 to 1978. But when athletics were disbanded at the college in 1978 – not to be reinstated until 1991 – Ray moved on to become an assistant coach at Mississippi State University. Ramsey was born in Starkville, Miss., before the family moved back to Northwest Florida and Ray started his new job as head coach of the Fort Walton Beach High School boys basketball team.
Ray led the Vikings for 13 seasons, from 1981 to 1994, and then decided it was time to retire from coaching. But the year before in 1993, an old friend, Murray Arnold, had been hired as head coach of the Raiders. Arnold and Ray had first crossed paths as high school coaches in central Florida in the 1960s, and later Arnold was a fellow assistant with Ray at Mississippi State. So the newly retired coach decided to drop by and watch his former colleague run the Raiders’ practice.
“Dad retired. We thought that would be it for coaching,” Ramsey said, recalling that his father would leave the house and say, “I’m just going to go out and watch practice.” Once a week turned into several times a week which turned into five days a week.
Then his family got a surprise. “We got the (Raiders) roster and it said, ‘Ray Ross, assistant coach,’ ” Ramsey said. “He just couldn’t stay away from it and pass up this opportunity.”
That first season with Ray as a Raiders assistant turned into a memorable one. Ray recalls that the team had gone 8-4 in the Panhandle Conference and entered postseason play without any expectations. They were just taking it game by game, Ray said, and “really got on a roll.” Winning the state championship propelled the Raiders to the NJCAA tournament in Hutchinson for the first time, where the Raiders were largely overlooked by the field. Athletics had only been reinstated at the college a few years before, and the Raiders were not considered a national power like they are today.
Ramsey, then 16, stayed in Fort Walton Beach during that surprising national championship run in 1995, but he remembers listening to the championship game on the radio and being amazed as the team rolled to a double-digit victory. He also remembers going to the local airport to greet the returning champions and finding it packed with supporters from the college and community who were there to welcome the Raiders back home. “How cool is this?” he remembers thinking.
Ray coached alongside Arnold for two more seasons until Arnold left for another coaching job in 1997. Once again, Ray was retired, but he still had one more stint with the Raiders left. During the 2010-11 season, he was asked to return as an assistant once again to provide a veteran presence while longtime head coach Bruce Stewart, who died in May 2011, was away from the team undergoing cancer treatments.
During his various coaching intervals with the Raiders spanning more than 40 years, Ray coached in the first and last games in the old campus gym (now Building 510) and in the first game in the state-of-the-art Arena, which opened in January 2011.
“It’s been interesting and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” he said.
In contrast to the under-the-radar 1994-95 team that Ray helped lead to the college’s first championship, the 2014-15 championship team “expected to be there,” Ramsey said. “Last year’s team was really hungry,” coming off a season in which they failed to advance to the state tournament, he said.
Preceding that 2015 title run were national championship game appearances in 2012 and 2013, which the Raiders lost each time. Ramsey – who joined the athletic department as coordinator of athletics in 2005 and took over as athletic director in 2012 – said that as proud as he is of the national championship last year, he’s just as proud that the Raiders have played for the national title three out of the last four seasons.
“That’s remarkable in junior college,” he said.
After the basketball team finished No. 1 last year, the Northwest Florida State College baseball team went on its own impressive postseason run and earned the school’s first national championship in baseball at the NJCAA World Series in Grand Junction, Colo.
“It was a magical year,” Ramsey said.
Ray pointed out that the first time the Raider basketball team made it to Hutchinson in 1995, they won it all. And the first time the baseball team made it to Grand Junction, they, too, won it all.
All three Raider national championship teams bought into the philosophy of “we over me,” Ray said. “If you don’t buy in, you don’t have a chance.”
Ray also credits the culture of the college to the success of its athletic teams, and Ramsey agreed. He said the athletic program aims to provide the teams and athletes the resources they need to succeed. In return, Ramsey said, “we hold them to high standards. I think it pays off in the long run.”