RALEIGH — As the final seconds ticked off the clock capping Leesville Road’s senior night win against Wake Forest-Rolesville, students clad in flannel and cowboy hats – it was Western theme night – started a chant: “Russ Frazier!” Clap-clap-clap-clap-clap. Repeat.
The first-year Leesville Road coach looked across the floor at the more than 100 students standing in the student section.
With a huge grin, he bowed and then pointed back at them.
This is as much about them as it is him and the team, he says.
Frazier has been a catalyst for change within the school’s basketball program and the excitement surrounding it. The team and its fans have worked hand and hand, feeding off of one another to bring success.
“The whole school’s behind us now,” said Pride senior guard Lemont Martin-White. “It’s motivation because you don’t want to let your school down. Coach reminds us that we’re not doing it for ourselves. It’s for the school and the community. … Our attitude changed. We’re not the same team we were last year.”
It has been four years since Leesville Road made the state tournament. The Pride combined for just 10 conference wins its in previous three seasons.
This season, Frazier’s first with the program, Leesville Road (18-8) finished the regular season as the No. 3 team in the Cap Eight 4A with a conference record of 10-4.
It was just one win out of first place to end the regular season, and fell just short against top-seeded Broughton in the tournament championship Friday.
The Pride is poised to make a return to the N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffs, which will begin Monday. Leesville Road will host Roxboro Person in the opening round.
Frazier is no stranger to this time of year. Before taking over the Leesville Road program, he led Pittsboro Northwood to the 2A state finals in 2009 and 2011.
“I thought it was going to be tough to teach someone how to win,” Frazier said of taking over at Leesville Road.
“They still don’t grasp all of it, but they try harder than anyone I’ve coached. … These kids, they’re workers and they believe. I’m still in shock that we’ve got this far this fast, and how much it means to them. This has been my favorite basketball season so far.”
Frazier’s face lights up equally when asked about the team and Leesville’s fans. Both have made his transition go rather smoothly.
The rapid change in the culture and atmosphere surrounding the program since he took over is clear.
Spectators have remarked, “it’s like Frazier Town in there,” after attending a Leesville Road home game.
Drake Edwards, a senior and member of the Leesville Loonies student section, described Frazier as “a players’ coach, but also a fans’ coach.”
“It’s completely a 180-degree turn,” said Leesville Road athletics director Jack Rogers. “It has gotten exponentially greater. … I think it’s directly related to Russ’ attitude. He’s excited to see the kids there, and he’s legitimately happy.”
Transferring the Nuthouse
When Frazier interviewed for the head coaching position at Leesville, he brought photos of the student section at Northwood.
The Nuthouse, as it was named, was created in 2007. Then-Northwood senior Alex Hart helped Frazier come up with the idea to set the school apart from others.
“We wanted to take it and create a unique atmosphere at Northwood,” said Hart, now a graduate assistant for the UNC-Greensboro men’s basketball team. “What can we do to make it completely different than anything you would experience in high school basketball?”
Northwood started theme nights at games. First it was Star Wars, then it grew to a Spartan theme and beach theme.
Rogers said Leesville administrators had not considered theme nights in the past, and weren’t sure how it would catch on at Leesville Road.
Student sections were not a new idea new to the Triangle or Cap Eight, but the Loonies, already established as a section during football games, took Frazier’s idea and ran with it, Rogers said.
“It has been my dream since I’ve been here to bring the Loonies from football inside for basketball and winter sports,” he said. “That to me is what a high school environment should be like. … Everyone is involved.”
After games, Leesville players pose for a “team picture” with the student section. At Northwood those shots were used in the state tournament program books.
“(Frazier) wanted to create ownership in the team for the student section and the community,” Hart said.
Rogers called the basketball version of the Loonies the “most chaotic experience in a controlled environment.” There are rumblings of taking the section out to baseball games once the spring sports season begins, he said.
The theme nights were the initial draw.
But as Leesville’s basketball team’s success has continued, the support and excitement within Loonieville has steadily grown.
It only took one workout with Frazier for the Leesville players to realize things would be different.
“Everything was a lot more positive – our attitude and energy on the court,” said senior Reggie Jones. “I knew we were going to win a lot more games, but I didn’t know it was going to be as drastic as attitudes on the team changing. ... Coach Frazier knew he wanted to win games, and now we’re doing more than we expected.”
Frazier says expectations are a funny thing.
His past records and accolades 133-39 overall and two consecutive Carolina-12 Coach of the Year awards preceded him when he arrived at Leesville Road, but Frazier said he didn’t want that to be the focus.
What matters most is that the Pride focus on taking it one day at a time, improving each day and playing as long as they can.
“We’re not playing for a first round. We’re playing because we don’t want to run out of time,” Frazier said.
“We’re going to play to earn that day, and those days add up, and eventually you end up playing in an arena and then you move to a major arena, and then pinch me because you’re in a dream world. That’s the goal, to run out of days.”
Frazier often uses figurative speech.
He’s a ball of animated emotions on the sidelines in his game day uniform: a blue dress shirt, khaki pants and one specific pair of green socks. His wife chooses between three ties to complete the outfit.
“I got superstitious about that,” he said.
One of the first questions Frazier asks people is “Do you think I’m crazy?”
Jones said the players understand that while Frazier may seem crazy to outsiders, their coach is just passionate for the game of basketball.
Frazier says that probably wasn’t always the case.
“I think they were scared at first, and the word everyone uses with me, they thought I was crazy,” Frazier said. “Everybody always does. They were like, ‘there’s no way this can happen here’… and as this goes on, crazy has turned into ‘Wow, this dude, he was right.’ ”
Making Russ Frazier
Frazier learned first hand from one of the best.
He is the son of veteran high school coach Terry Frazier, who coached at Roanoke Rapids High for nearly 40 years and earned the NCHSAA Tony Webb State Coach of the Year Award last year.
“I act just like him, right down to my mannerisms, right down to the way I talk,” Frazier said. “I used to say my father marched to the beat of a different drummer, and while the drum was playing everyone was following behind him like he was the pied piper. I watched that my whole life, and now I feel like I live in the same thing.”
Frazier calls himself a clone of his father. Growing up the son of a coach made basketball an integral part of his life.
High school basketball has been a part of his daily life since age of 4.
But he didn’t jump at the opportunity when he was first tapped to try his hand at coaching.
When Frazier was asked to assist then-New Hanover coach Linc Lyles while attending nearby UNC-Wilmington, he initially declined.
“My dad called me up and said, ‘You might find a career,’ ” Frazier said.
Ten years later, Frazier said it’s surreal to have his father, now retired, in the stands at his games.
He says he gets his passion for helping kids from his dad, and describes his own personality as hard working and fun loving.
“I get lost in the moment,” Frazier said. “I get caught up doing this and trying so hard to do the best I can at my job, and these kids they’ve gotten lost in the moment now, and it’s just really fun.
“Good people do great things. Great people win championships. We’ll get it done here eventually. It’s gonna take time, but as great as these people are, the success is coming. It just came a whole lot faster.”