When Ovester Grays became the girls’ basketball coach at Hillside High School before the 1996-97 season, he knew he wanted to make a difference.
And what a difference he has made.
Grays earned his 500th win as a coach Thursday night as the Hornets defeated Northwood 60-32 on the road in their regular season finale. His record at Hillside is 500-78 in 21 seasons.
And he promises there are more to come.
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The Hornets also wrapped up the Big Eight 3A Conference regular-season title with the win. The Hornets are in their first year of play in the Big Eight after competing the last eight years in the PAC-6 4A. It marks Hillside’s 17th regular season conference title under Grays. The Hornets will chase the conference tournament title next week.
Hillside has not missed the state playoffs under Grays. The Hornets begin another run at the state tournament on Feb. 17.
Grays was relaxed before Thursday’s game despite being ill. He said he’s missed only one game because of sickness. During the game Grays coached with a passion and intensity as his players built an early lead and then cruised to victory. After the game, Grays popped on his signature tan baseball cap and smiled with pride as he talked to his players in the locker room.
He told them how proud he was to be their coach, how far they’d come during the season and how close they are to achieving their goals for the season.
“First off, it achieves our first goal,” Grays said. “This win locks up the conference title and that’s what I am most excited about. Goal one achieved and now on to goal two to win the conference tournament next week.
“It hasn’t even begun to sink in what 500 means. I can’t comprehend it right now. My mind has been wrapped around figuring out how to help this team achieve its goals. Maybe sometime later down the road I’ll be able to sit down and think about what means. It certainly is significant. It’s unbelievable. I can’t fathom that I’d be in this spot right now.”
His current team — one of his youngest, he said, knew they were playing a special game against Northwood.
“We knew about it and we talked about it and how special it was,” Hillside sophomore point guard Maleiya Hill said. “We wanted to get the win because it was his 500th win.”
Fellow sophomore Faith Blackstone, who has become one of the team’s focal points since Elisia Grissett moved on to play collegiately at South Carolina, echoed Hill’s sentiments.
“It’s a blessing to be on the team and helping Coach Grays get his 500th win,” Blackstone said. “It’s something we’re proud of and its a great accomplishment for him. It’s exciting.”
How it all began
Grays got his start at Hillside on a whim. After serving as an assistant at Jordan for two seasons and having just started an AAU team in the early 1990s that he still manages, an unexpected opening with the Hornets occurred. Hillside was coming off its only girls’ basketball state championship in 1996 but was in need of a coach after George Williams was assigned to another school.
Grays said he immediately sought the position, turning in his application and résumé the day he learned of the opening. Grays said he knew of the high level of talent at Hillside and he’s done his best to build on the success of his predecessor.
He has started each season the same way — setting three goals for his teams: win the Big Eight regular season championship, the Big Eight tournament championship and finally the state championship. The Hornets have made good on the first two goals plenty of times for Grays. They even made a state title game appearance in 2009 but came up short and winning a state title has proved elusive for Grays.
Hillside (15-7, 13-1) struggled during the first part of this season as it faced some of the toughest teams in the state, Grays said.
“We got off to a slow start, no doubt,” Grays said. “When you lose four four-year starters, we had to regroup. We’ve now got four sophomores out there trying to contribute. It took a little bit longer for them to meld as a team. After Christmas, they’ve bonded and I am pleased with where they’re at. I think they’ve got a good shot of achieving their goals.
“In those seven losses, we lost to (Charlotte) Mallard Creek, one of the top 4-A teams in the state, (Wake Forest) Heritage, who I suspect is one of the best 4-A teams, Southeast Raleigh, those are some powerhouses. Two or three of our losses we probably shouldn’t have lost but we grew from them.”
Success off the court has been a hallmark for Grays’ players, too. After becoming Hillside’s coach, he instituted higher academic standards for his players than the state required.He met some early resistance but over time the high standards have helped much more than they hurt, he said.
Grays’ players fully embrace his methods. He’s had more than 90 players go on to play basketball in college and many more go on to matriculate to college.
“He really cares about us and he knows what he’s doing,” Hill said. “If you listen to him, he’s going to get you to where you want to be.”