The atmosphere at Barry Hall Field reached a fever pitch on Tuesday night as undefeated East Surry closed in on a trip to the 1A state baseball championship series.
Joel Hooper has covered multiple state championship teams over the years as a sports broadcaster for 100.9 WIFM radio — from Elkin’s dominant football programs in the early 2000s to Forbush and East Surry’s powerhouse softball teams in recent years.
For Hooper and broadcast partner Daron Atkins, who called Game 1 of East Surry’s Western regional baseball final series against Hayesville on Tuesday night, the excitement of the postseason never gets old.
“The emotions are amped up a little more, the crowds are bigger, and there are more people listening. This is what it’s about,” Hooper said. “I’ve had a chance to cover (East Surry) throughout the playoffs. I’m as impressed with them as any team I’ve been around. Not just baseball. That’s as close-knit a team as I’ve been around. A good group of guys to be around, ‘Yes sir, no sir,’ and knowing they are playing for the legend, coach (Barry) Hall. I’m hanging on for the ride.”
Tons of baseball fans have certainly jumped on the bandwagon during the Cardinals’ historic season. East (29-0) broke the record for most wins in a season and have shattered the record for the best start in school history.
Barry Hall Field has been a sea of red in this year’s state playoffs. Record crowds have come out for the last two contests against Albemarle and Hayesville.
Hooper said his job is to paint a picture for folks tuning in over the airwaves and streaming online, some overseas in places such as Afghanistan, Germany, Italy and Japan.
“We want to let you be able to use your imagination, and put you there. From what the uniforms look like to the smells from the concession stand,” Hooper said. “For us, it’s like being a referee. When you don’t realize they are there, it probably means they’ve done a great job. When things stick out, that’s not a good thing. We want to tell the story, not be the story.”
Hooper, an Elkin native, got his start in 1993 doing stats at WIFM’s old location before working at WAAV in Wilmington and WWWC in Wilkesboro. Hooper moved back to Elkin and became the sports director at WIFM in 1998. Hooper lives in Elkin with his wife Leslie, a high school teacher.
Over the last decade or so, Hooper has been able to cover Elkin’s run of four 1A football titles in five years, Starmount’s first football state crown in 1998, as well as Forbush, West Wilkes and East Surry’s softball state championships.
“Each one has its own special feel,” Hooper said. “It’s not just the game or the team, but it seems like when you follow along, you get a chance to bond with the team, coaches and community, and that’s what’s cool.”
Hooper said when owner/CEO Gary York came to WIFM, he pushed hard to emphasize local sports. Ten years ago, WIFM carried its first live baseball and softball broadcasts.
“This is my favorite time of year for any sports season,” said Hooper, who has had the opportunity to cover championship games at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, and BB&T Field in Winston-Salem.
Hooper, the play-by-play broadcaster, has worked with a few radio partners over the years. Atkins, in his 16th year teaching engineering and agriculture at North Surry High School, joined the broadcast team in 2007.
Atkins won an afternoon sports trivia contest and when he went to the radio station to pick up the certificate, he told York if WIFM ever needed help to give him a call. Not long after that, Hooper reached out to Atkins. WIFM was looking for a color commentator.
“I’ve been going strong ever since,” Atkins said. “I’ve been a sports junkie forever. I’ve officiated for years.”
Atkins graduated from East Surry and was cut from the baseball team by coach Hall. Atkins has no hard feelings though.
“We were very deep at the position I played. The two guys in front of me were good,” Atkins said. “Coach Hall told me I wouldn’t get any playing time, but he offered me the opportunity to umpire JV baseball. I had just turned 18. That was in 1983.”
Atkins has officiated baseball, softball, football, basketball and volleyball. He has officiated volleyball for 24 years and had the chance to officiate a state championship match with his wife Kim, a 12-year volleyball official.
When he joined Hooper on the sports broadcast team, Atkins said the two just clicked, and they have become good friends.
“Someone asked me one week, how I know when to talk,” Atkins said. “I listen for him to breathe, then I know I’ve got an opening.”
Both recalled a time when they were driving back from a state championship event when the rear tire on the vehicle blew.
“He’s a great friend. I’d trust him with my life. We’ve had some stories to tell. We were coming through Death Valley there on I-40, and there was a huge racket in right rear wheel,” Hooper said. “I said, ‘I think a helicopter landed on our vehicle.’ He said, ‘No, my friend you’ve blown out a tire.’ The right rear wheel exploded, and I had to get across six lanes of traffic.”
“I think that was the last time I let Joel drive,” Atkins said with a chuckle. “We’ve had a tire blow, ran out of gas, been pulled over by a state trooper.”
The work doesn’t start when the radio broadcast goes live. Much time and energy is devoted to research and setup.
“We have to know what’s going on, know the teams, all the behind the scenes things,” Hooper said. “I’m learning a little bit about the background of Hayesville. There are a lot of things with the producer, the board operator. There’s a person at the station on a given game night fielding phone calls, getting scores in. But with all the preparation, none would be possible without the help of sponsors.
“All that for a couple hours when the microphone is hot, and the lights are on. You’ve got to be ready. You can’t go back when it’s time to shine.”
WIFM could be anywhere from East Surry to Starmount or Wilkes Central to Mount Airy. So how does WIFM manage to cover so much ground in the Yadkin Valley region?
“It’s tough. A big thank you to all the coaches, athletic directors, and the fans in general,” Hooper said. “To try to cover them, you have to build relationships. You’ve got to build trust. That’s what we’ve tried to do at WIFM. I hope they feel like they can trust us, when we report scores and stories on the athletes. We want to hold student-athletes in the best light as we can.”
“It’s not just passion for the sport, but passion for the community,” Atkins said. “It’s not about me and Joel. It’s about the boys and girls, and what they do with their life. I hope I get to do this for a long time.”
Atkins said after WIFM interviewed Hall on Tuesday, he noticed the longtime coach autographing baseballs for a few kids.
The veteran Hall has been coaching for decades — now in his 39th year at the helm at East. During the regular season, he earned his 700th career win, second all-time in the state of North Carolina.
An East victory tonight would send Hall to his third state championship appearance. To get there the Cards will have to win on the road in Hayesville, a 262-mile drive deep in the heart of the Smoky Mountains.
WIFM will broadcast the game live. Hooper wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“As long as there are people in the Yadkin Valley that want to know what’s happening, local radio will be a driving force in what we do,” Hooper said. “I enjoy being able to get student-athletes’ names out there on the radio, giving them notoriety for what they are doing on the playing field and in the classroom.”