In the mid-1970s, Chilhowie was a thriving blue-collar town, driven economically by farming, apple orchards, lumber and furniture manufacturing and local, family-owned businesses. Like many communities in Southwest Virginia, town residents worked hard all week and lived for Friday nights. Football was king in this tiny town with a population of about 2,000 residents, and it seemed every time the Chilhowie Warrior gridiron squad suited up, all 2,000 of those folks were in the stands. A state football championship in 1970 ignited local passion for football, and other sports at Chilhowie High School took a back seat. The school’s baseball program was marginally successful and a complete afterthought. Basketball, while experiencing the occasional successful season or two, was of casual interest, and the modest gym was rarely, if ever, filled to capacity. Only diehard basketball enthusiasts, players’ families and girlfriends, and a small portion of the student body showed consistent support at games. But that was about to change in the summer of ’77 with the arrival of a 23-year-old rookie coach from Tennessee by way of Virginia Tech and a 15-year-old who a few years prior had relocated to Chilhowie with his family from Queens, New York.
Gregory Allen Belcher was a model student, humble to his core, liked and respected by everyone who crossed his path, and the greatest basketball player to ever don a Warrior uniform. John Goodwin was a young coach who must have felt like he’d won the lottery when he was chosen to replace Dickie Greer as Chilhowie’s head basketball coach after the ‘76-‘77 season. The Warrior basketball program won 20 games in Greer’s last year at the helm with Hogoheegee District regular-season and tournament titles and lost just two seniors from that championship squad. Returning was 1,000-point scorer Charles Tucker and a host of other veteran players, and finally eligible for varsity play after three years on the eighth-grade squad (during his sixth- through eighth-grade years) was Gregg Belcher.
“I was 23 years old and thought I knew everything about coaching,” Goodwin said.
“But I really didn’t know anything,” he chuckled. “Expectations were high with everything we had returning and with Gregg finally on varsity, and after the Smyth County tournament in December we were 4-4. Gregg was coming off the bench during those first eight games. Over Christmas break we had a week of practice and we elevated Gregg to a starting role, and we won 16 straight ballgames. I’m not saying Belcher was solely responsible, but you can do the math. We were 4-4 and reeled off 16 straight after making the change.”
That maiden voyage for Goodwin and Belcher included repeating as district regular-season and tournament champs. The season ended with a narrow loss in the Region C final to James River High School, a game in which Belcher put the veteran Warrior squad on his slight, youthful shoulders (he was generously listed at 6’0”, 140 pounds in the school program that year) by dropping in 35 points, nearly single-handedly keeping Chilhowie in the game in the second half. His teammates referred to it as the moment Belcher became the face of the program.
In the mid ‘70s, the local hotspot for pickup basketball games was the outdoor court in the agriculture building’s parking lot behind Chilhowie High School. All the local players, the serious players, came to showcase their skills and play against top-level competition. It was hard to find a day that a game wasn’t happening, whether it was late evening on school nights (there was a streetlight on the corner of the ag building that lit the court), summer vacation or weekends, and the games were no joke. There was a lot of trash talking, pushing and shoving, and hard fouls. “No blood, no foul” was the unwritten court rule, but if you wanted to get better, that was the court on which to play.
“You had to be able to play to get on that court,” said Tony Legard, a teammate of Belcher’s for two years. “It took most of us until late in our high-school days or later to even get on that court because we weren’t good enough. Belcher was a regular on that court as a middle-schooler, playing against guys much older, guys who had already graduated. And he’d hold his own.”
Current Marion Senior High School principal Mike Davidson, who also played two years with Belcher, said of the court, “I remember standing many days just hoping to get in a game there. You’d wait and wait, and when you finally did get in a game, the competition was so good, you’d be out quick. If you didn’t play defense, you’d be out. Then you’d stand and wait a few more hours to get in another game.”
Former Chilhowie principal Mike Sturgill noted, “Coach Greer always used to say that court was the lifeblood of the Chilhowie program. Back then, you had very limited out-of-season practices or organized team activities so everybody played on the ag court. That court is what kept the program going.”
As he grew older, Belcher began to dominate that court just as he terrorized rival high-school gyms across the area. It was rare to see a team win several games in a row on that court, and whatever team Belcher was on generally stayed on the court for a while, sometimes all day or night. On the surface, he seemed like a quiet, unassuming guy who never cared much for the bright spotlight the game of basketball shone upon him. But he had an incredible passion to win, was a vocal leader when he needed to be and always made his teammates better. “I had so many more opportunities as a junior than I did as a senior,” Davidson said, “because opponents had to be so focused on stopping Gregg on the perimeter, it opened things up for us bigger guys inside. After he graduated, I had to work much harder to get the ball down low because teams didn’t have to worry about him being out there shooting what for him were 20-foot layups.”
Over the better part of the next decade, Chilhowie basketball enjoyed a run of success not seen prior to Belcher’s arrival and not equaled since. The Warriors shared the district regular-season crown in ’78-’79 and won the regular-season and tournament titles in both ’79-’80 and ’80-81 as Belcher blossomed into one of the area’s best players, not only of his era but all time. His 1,958 career point total is still a VHSL top-50 all- time mark, sharing the list with names such as NBA greats Moses Malone, Grant Hill, J.J. Redick, Alonzo Mourning and Dell Curry.
There was no three-point line in high-school basketball when Gregg played. Had it existed, who knows what the point total might have been. “Well above 2,000,” said Goodwin. “He had unlimited range. People remember Gregg as a jump shooter, but he was so much more. I can still see him knifing through the lane shooting layups, getting offensive rebounds for stickbacks and finding open teammates for easy looks. And his defense was very underrated. He was an exceptional defender. One year, I think his senior year, he missed a couple games due to sickness and we had three or four ballgames cancelled, if I remember right, due to high gas prices and travel costs. So he lost several games that year.”
“He could have scored more points, but our philosophy was once we got the game in hand, we sat our starters. It wasn’t in my DNA to show off, but Gregg wouldn’t have done that anyway because he knew we’d have to play our opponents again someday. We had guys on the bench that deserved playing time, too. We didn’t make a habit of embarrassing people. There were a lot of games Gregg was out of the game at halftime. The night he scored 43 against Honaker, we were up big at halftime and he played very little the second half.”
“If I remember correctly, he was 18-for-18 from the field and 4-for-4 from the line at halftime for 40 points and we were up 58-18,” Sturgill remembered of that first 43-point night. “He played just a couple possessions in the second half and then sat the rest of the night. It was as close to a perfect performance as you’ll ever see.” Belcher equaled his 43-point output one year later against Honaker again, but that was in a two-point overtime win.
Belcher averaged 12.5 points per game as a freshman and increased his scoring output every season thereafter. He averaged over 23 points per game as a sophomore and junior and 25.7 as a senior. Chilhowie won games in bunches, amassing an amazing 76-20 record during his four-year career, including a 43-3 mark at home. Fan support and community interest skyrocketed as Chilhowie regularly played in front of a packed house, both at home and on the road. On many occasions, due to the fire code, the game would be shown via closed-circuit TV in the school’s auditorium as fans clamored to get a glimpse of Belcher’s Warriors. Standing onlookers could often be found three and four deep on the gym-floor sidelines or on the baselines.
The team made regional playoff appearances each year he wore the Warrior jersey, narrowly missing advancing beyond regional play. Gregg was named to the All-Hogoheegee District team all four years and the All-Region C team his final three years, was the Hogoheegee and Region C player of the year in ’79-’80 and ’80-’81, and was named first-team all-state in ’80-’81.
“He was as consistent as they come,” commented Davidson. “It didn’t matter if it was a big game, a weaker opponent, regardless you knew you were going to get 25 points out of Belcher. He showed up to play every night.”
Goodwin, meanwhile, parlayed his early success at Chilhowie into a brilliant 13-year career during which he collected a school-record 210 coaching victories. His Warriors won six regular-season titles and eight tournament titles, and his teams made eight regional appearances. He had the opportunity to coach arguably the three best players in Chilhowie history in Belcher, Tucker and Stephen Fields.
He left the coaching profession at the relatively young age of 36 to pursue other career interests, but if you talk to him to this day, he still thinks, acts, looks like a coach. He instilled a philosophy of how his program would be run, sold that bill of goods to his players, and they bought it and ran with it. That isn’t an easy thing to do. He was a disciplinarian whose style may not relate or translate to today’s coaching world, but what he did and what the program accomplished during his tenure have not been close to being equaled in terms of longevity of success.
“Gregg was a very humble person,” Goodwin stated. “A lot of players that could play the game like he could play, they’d have an ego. But Gregg never did. I never thought I could outcoach anybody, but we had players that were willing to work for the greater good of what we were trying to achieve, and that was to win. We wanted guys who would play hard and play together, regardless of who scored the points. We thought we’d win more than we’d lose if we had that. Gregg bought into that philosophy, and that was a great example for the other players – to see that if our best player bought into it, then others would follow, which they did.”
“I never had a buddy-buddy relationship with my players. I didn’t believe in that. I wasn’t out hunting or fishing or playing pickup games with them. I couldn’t do that because when the time comes to get in a player’s face and you have to go from being their buddy to their coach, that doesn’t work. Star players like Gregg didn’t get by with anything, not that he would have expected to, because he worked as hard as anybody to be what he was. He never slacked in practice, doing conditioning, anything. He was a complete ballplayer.”
There was much more to Gregg Belcher than just basketball. He was a standout academically, collecting A’s on his report cards as effortlessly as he buried 25-foot jumpers. He was an all-state wideout and defensive back in football and a four-time all-district baseball player. His fastball was generally unhittable, and he had tremendous power for his relatively small frame. He was a standout track-and-field athlete.
In the time I knew him, I never heard one person say a negative word about him. He was courteous and polite and had a great sense of humor. He never once acted like he was better than the next guy even though he was generally better than the next guy at, well, just about everything.
Current Chilhowie Middle School principal Sam Blevins was one of Gregg’s closest friends. Blevins was the quarterback on Chilhowie’s exceptional football teams of that era and Gregg’s classmate as well as a teammate on the basketball team. “We spent a ton of time together,” Blevins said. “He was just a great guy to be around. He had a big heart.” Belcher was Blevins’ go-to target at wide receiver, and they had a great chemistry on the football field and basketball court.
“One story to just illustrate what kind of guy Gregg was: We were playing Pony League baseball, and I wasn’t a very good hitter in baseball,” Blevins reminisced. “He threw harder than anybody and could hit better than everybody. One day our teams were playing each other and he was pitching, and he grooved me two fastballs right down the middle of the plate and I got two singles off of him. I knew he felt sorry for me because he served up two easy ones for me to hit. But I didn’t care. From that day forward, I could say I got two hits off of Belcher.”
Davidson also shared a Little League baseball story of a time he was pitching and Gregg kept fouling off pitch after pitch. “He fouled off like 10 pitches, and I was getting frustrated. I finally decided I was going to throw it as hard as I could and see if I could get it by him, and I threw him my best fastball. He hit it a mile out of the park to dead center field.”
“When I first came to Chilhowie,” Goodwin said, “I coached the JV football team as well as basketball. Gregg was the starting quarterback on the JV team so he’d play on Monday night as a JV player at quarterback and then suit up on Friday night and play receiver and defensive back for the varsity.”
“Another thing I remember that always stood out, and this has nothing to do with sports, was Gregg’s handwriting,” said Goodwin, who doubled as a science and P.E. teacher. “He had the best handwriting I’ve ever seen in 30 years of teaching.” Even in penmanship, Belcher was better than most.
From a personal perspective, Gregg was a senior when I was a freshman. I was generally in awe of his ability whenever I was around him, and any interaction I had with him I considered a privilege. After Gregg’s team was eliminated from post-season contention his senior year, he would come get me out of study hall and take me to the gym to play one-on-one games with him. I wasn’t sure why he did that back then, but knowing what I know now about him, I think it was his way of giving back to the program. He wanted to teach me the right way to play, or teach me some skills I hadn’t attained, to try to instill some of his legacy in younger players in the program. He did that with other players as well.
We’d play one-on-one to 10, and he’d generally beat me 10-2 or 10-3. He wouldn’t shut me out even though he could have but would let me score a few points to build my confidence. And it worked! I knew if I could score on Belcher, I could score on anybody. We’d always play one final game at the end of each session, and he’d spot me nine points going to 10. I’d start the game up 9-0, first to 10 wins. I never once made it to 10 before him.
In February of this year, current Warrior head boys’ basketball coach Matt Snodgrass put together a program on senior night to honor Belcher with a pregame ceremony and plaque to commemorate his career. Earlier this past season, Warrior junior Dylan Catron scored 43 points against Patrick Henry, equaling Belcher’s record for most points in a game. Belcher graduated from CHS well before Snodgrass was born, but the impact and contributions Gregg made and his legacy were not lost on the young coach.
Snodgrass said, “One thing we’re cognizant of and we try to do is honor former players in the program. We wanted to bring him in and acknowledge his accomplishments and what he meant and continues to mean to our program. We hoped to have Coach Goodwin present him with a plaque. Well, Coach Goodwin was running late so we started the ceremony, and thank goodness it took forever to read Belcher’s list of records and accomplishments because right as the P.A. announcer finished up, Goodwin walks in, straight to Belcher, and gives him a big hug. I think it was a special moment for them both.”
“It was my first time meeting Gregg, and I have to admit, I and our current staff were a little intimidated by his presence. I mean, you hear all the stories of how great he was and read about all his accomplishments, and you expect a big, arrogant personality. But he was just as humble and grateful as he could be. It was a real thrill for us all to be able to honor him. Hopefully we’re trying to instill some of those same winning philosophies the program enjoyed back in his era. We want to be as successful as they were.”
Snodgrass is off to a good start in restoring the program to greatness – his Warrior teams have won 54 games the past three seasons, including a school-record 21-win season in 2016-’17, and his teams have collected 94 wins in his six years at the helm.
When the news broke in early May that Gregg had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, the town and basketball community were, as expected, saddened and shocked. It seems as if Gregg always had a knack for doing things way too soon. He was an eighth-grade basketball player at the age of 12, was the best player on his varsity team and the local playground at the age of 15, and carried the responsibility and burden of an entire program and town in every athletic venue for four years in high school. And when he left us at the age of 55 on May 7, 2018, he left us way too soon.
In talking with his friends, teachers and coaches, the recurring theme is that as good as he was athletically, he was an even better person. He was the consummate player, teammate, leader, friend and student. He put others before himself even though he had every reason to put himself on a pedestal. He has always been and will always be the gold standard by which Chilhowie basketball is measured. His retired #25 jersey along with the many trophies he had a hand in winning stand this day in Chilhowie’s trophy case just outside the gym doors. His #25 remains the only jersey retired in program history.
Coach Goodwin summed it up best: “I had the privilege to coach a lot of great players in my time, but Gregg was, by far, the best basketball player to ever come through Chilhowie. And as good a player as he was, he was that good of a person.”