Understandably, Hernando Christian Academy coach Mike Drummond chooses his words carefully. But on this occasion, he simply couldn't help himself.
After being reminded to follow his shot almost every game for the past three seasons, senior center Ryan Gray finally took his coach's words to heart, scoring 19 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in a 72-61 victory Friday at Cedar Key.
"I don't cuss very often, but I told him after the game, "Son, you had a hell of a game,' " Drummond said. "I don't mean that with any disrespect to my Lord and Savior, but he just played a heck of a game that night, and that was probably the best game I've seen Ryan play since he's been here."
The game came in the middle of the best four-game stretch of Gray's three years at HCA. He grabbed 19 rebounds against Ocala St. John Lutheran on Jan. 6, scored 23 points against Seffner Christian Academy on Jan. 12 and had 15 points and 14 rebounds Tuesday against Academy at the Lakes.
Gray, a 6-foot-3 senior center, is playing with the confidence that comes from knowing his way around the basket and holding his own against players three and four inches taller, including 6-7 Terry Guillanne of Academy at the Lakes.
"He played well for me all year and played well for me last year, but you can definitely tell he's a senior player that's been in the system for three years this year," Drummond said. "He's really come into his own this last four, five, six games."
Gray's recent surge upped his season averages to 10.6 points and a county-leading 12 rebounds. He pulled off an unusual feat against Cedar Key, inadvertently knocking three players out of the game with injuries while competing for rebounds.
"This is my last year," Gray said. "I have to leave something here, so, being a senior and knowing that the kids behind me are looking up to me and the rest of the varsity, it adds a little more pressure, and it's a lot more fun to sit there and watch the others grow up and know they could be something like me or anybody else who does well in the game."
Gray sees the youngsters' progress firsthand, as he regularly arrives for practice 30 minutes to an hour early to help coach the junior varsity.
"When we're running big man drills, I just tell my kids, "You just go down there and work with Ryan,' and it frees me up to work with my guards on the other end of the floor," Drummond said. "I think Ryan would make a great coach one day, because he's a student of the game.
"He is a guy who's had to work for everything he's got. He doesn't have the natural ability or gifts of some of the other guys who come out, but because he's had to work for it, his court awareness is much better."
Gray would like to coach someday. But first, he has more immediate plans.
He will travel to Tampa next week to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test and have a physical. He plans to spend a year in the Navy working as an air traffic controller or missile technician.
After that, Gray would like to apply for officership at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, then attend flight school in the hopes of becoming a fighter pilot.
"I always wanted to be a pilot," Gray said. "I'm a car person. I love working on my car. I love going fast. Seeing all these planes and all this new technology that's coming out, it's really interesting to see how far you can push your limits."
It's a dangerous time to be in the military, with the War on Terror and attacks on U.S. forces overseas. But Gray said he feels "compelled" to serve his country, as his grandfather did during World War II.
"It's always just been a dream," Gray said.
Coaching will have to wait.
_ Frank Pastor can be reached at (800) 333-7505, ext. 1430. Send e-mail to pastorsptimes.com.