Tour of a Champion: Valley basketball coach Marshon Harper speaks to Kiwanis club

Published 8:00 am Friday, March 10, 2023

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VALLEY — Valley High’s 33-0 season in boys basketball isn’t something that just came together in one special year. What culminated this past Saturday with a 5A state championship in Birmingham was a building process that goes back several years. Head coach Marshon Harper talked about that process at Wednesday’s noon hour meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Valley.

Two years ago Harper was entering his 20th year as the head basketball coach at his alma mater. He had some experienced players coming back from the previous season and had high hopes for an outstanding season.

He was caught off guard when some of his returning players came to him and told him they were leaving Valley High. It surprised and hurt him but ended up convincing him that things had to be different.

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“I took a vow that day to not be outworked by anyone,” he said. “I would do all I could to get scholarships for the players I coached. If we’d been practicing for one hour a day, we’d practice for two. If we’d been getting up at 5 a.m. we’d get up at 4.”

The next season ended with a playoff loss to Park Crossing. “We were down by one point at the half and lost by 30,” he said.

Still a lot of work had gone in to get better.

Getting ready for the 2022-23 season began on June 1. Harper felt good about the prospects for the team. There were lots of experienced players buying into the turnaround that had begun the previous season. There was an experienced core of six seniors and five juniors.

A routine that changed in those early practices was the way they broke the huddle to start the game or to take to the court after a timeout. They’d previously said “1-2-3 Go Rams!” That changed to “1-2-3 Champions!”

A sign in the lobby of the gym instructed everyone to clock in. Every day on their way into the gym, each player would jump up to touch the sign. It was a way of saying that each member of the team was all-in toward doing something special.

During the summer, Coach Harper’s team took part in pre-season tournaments.

“We went to one in Auburn, another one in Troy and one in Gadsden,” Harper said. “I could sense something special about this team in the way they warmed up for each game. Every coach I talked to told me this team could be really special in the upcoming season.”

Harper talked to coaches who had won state championships and asked them about their practice routines. “One coach told me he wanted his team to take 100 shots every practice,” he said. “I got my guys to take 200. We became confident that every shot would go in.”

In 22 years of coaching basketball, Harper has had many teams make playoff runs, some to the final four, but had never had a team to win a state championship. One of those teams went 26-4 and made it to Birmingham before going down in the semifinals. That team was led by Toe-Toe Atkinson and Trent McCants. Another team making a deep run was led by brothers Mario and Dante Dooley, who stood in the 6-4 to 6-6 range. Their sons, cousins Cam and Denali, were key members on this year’s team.

What their dads came close to doing but came up short of the top, they made it to that lofty summit. At the end of the school’s first-ever undefeated regular season, it would take six playoff wins to bring home a state championship trophy.

“Since we had six seniors, I wanted each one of them to do something special,” Harper said.

He made a sign for each game, counting down each win. He taped the sign to the wall, and when the Rams won the game, a senior would tear up the sign. Before there next game, Coach Harper would put up a new one with a lower number. It went steadily from 6 to 5 to 4, 3, 2, 1. The last sign in the series was torn up by a player wearing number 0, point guard Jamarious Martin.

“When we started this, he didn’t know if he’d get a chance to tear up his sign,” Harper said. “When he did, we all went a little crazy.”

Harper credits his team for being calm, confident and business-like throughout the whole season, ending in a 33-0 record.

“Anyone who has ever seen me coach knows that I’m not a calm person,” he said. “At times, I can get very emotional.”

Harper said the final four trip to Birmingham was a great experience for everyone.

“We got to tour UAB and got to see all the sights around town,” he said. “We got there on Wednesday and got to practice in a local gym. There were a lot of kids there. They were so excited to see us. They thought we were NBA players, especially Brandon Thomas.”

Thomas is the team’s 6-6 center and has put on a season-long dunking fest for those who came to Valley games.

Harper points to one play made by Thomas in the state championship game as the key play in a hard-fought win over Charles Henderson.

“He dove for a loose ball, got it and passed it to Cam Dooley,” Harper said. “It led to a fast break with Brandon dunking the ball.”

Dooley was the most valuable player in the state title game.

“He got in early foul trouble and had to sit out most of the first half,” Harper said. “He had only two points at halftime, and we were down by two points. He scored 19 in the second half.”

Harper is a Valley native and had bled orange and blue almost his entire life.

“I used to go to Valley High football games when I was a little kid,” he said. “I loved watching guys like John Copeland and Lemanski Hall play. I went Langdale (a.k.a. Lafayette Lanier) Elementary School. Danny Berry was my principal. I wanted to be a good player for Valley when it came my time.”

Harper was an All-Valley player at VHS and has had more success in coaching. He’s the first basketball coach at Valley High to have won over 30 games in a season, the first one to have had an undefeated season and the first one to bring home that blue map from the state championship game. The 2022-23 Rams are the first 5A team in Alabama to have an undefeated season in boys basketball.