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Senate Honors Rickards

By James Call


Tallahassee, FL – In the midst of March Madness, the Florida Senate last week honored the 2010 Class 3A basketball state champions. The Senate unanimously approved a resolution by Senator Al Lawson recognizing and commending the performance of the James Rickards High School team. Lawmakers say the performance of the Tallahassee students on the court and in the classroom is outstanding.

"A resolution "

It's a ritual performed in state capitols everywhere -- lawmakers scoring points by recording into the official record the accomplishments of high school students.

"Rickards Raiders "

Rickards High School educates 13-hundred students in a World War II-era neighborhood about four miles from the Capitol and a national forest. Its diverse student body excels in athletics as well as in the classroom, with the math team nationally ranked. Michelle Gayle is the school principal.

"I would like to say thank you for recognizing these scholar athletes on this day. They work very hard on and off the court because you see these are scholars first and athletes second."

Gayle told Senators the basketball team leads the Raiders charge in academics. On the court, they defeated two-time defending state champion Pine Crest, a school in Senate President Jeff Atwater's district.

"Did Pine Crest put up a good fight? Was it a close game? No? Oh great. Starting five, grade point average over 3.0, this is a great thing."

The 2010 Rickards Raiders state champions represent a basketball truth that delights fans, it seems, every March during the NCAA tournament -- a small unsuspecting team with solid academic credentials succeeding against schools known for athletic accomplishments. This year, it is Cornell. Before, it was Valparaiso. A while back it was Gonzaga. The relationship between academics and basketball is one Senator Al Lawson, a former NBA player, said he understands.

"Basketball keeps a lot of kids out of trouble. It creates discipline among the kids, and it shows a lot of respect for other players, and you know you have the ups of winning and down of losing. It helps you to learn how to deal with losing. Life is a series of ups and downs, and basketball is like that, you know, you have to be able to respond."

If James Naismith could, he would probably give Senator Lawson a high five. Naismith created the game of basketball in 1891 at a teacher's college. It was an activity to keep students out of trouble during long Massachusetts winters. By 1934, when Westminster College played St. Johns at Madison Square Garden, Naismith's game had become a nationwide sport. About fifty years later, Al Lawson began sponsoring basketball clinics, camps and tournaments for Tallahassee kids. That's why he was beaming like a proud papa when his Senate colleagues applauded the Rickards players.

"To see those kids grow up that participated in those clinics and all those things we provided for them to give them counseling and so forth, and go out and win the state championship is just really, really great, and see all of them qualify to go to college, which is really important. And to win a state championship and go 27 and 0 is quite an accomplishment."

The Rickards Raiders are coached by Eli Bryant. He took control of the program four years ago and was an assistant coach at the school in 1992, the last time Rickards won a state championship. Lawson claims the coach, too. He notes that they both grew up in Gadsden County.