Over the entire lifespan of Portsmouth Clay High School, there have been some excellent student-athletes that have walked the halls of the campus.
However, in the 77-year history of Clay High School, one would be hard-pressed to find many student-athletes who were better in both areas over the school’s entire history of existence than Cole Gilliland.
Gilliland’s hard work in not only baseball and basketball — where he has been named as a three-time All-Southeast District honoree — but in the classroom, where the multi-sport standout was part of WSAZ’s “Best of the Class” after locking down valedictorian honors for Clay’s Class of 2017 — paid off on Friday afternoon when Gilliland signed to further his basketball career, and his academic career, at Kentucky Christian University.
For the 6-4 standout, the decision came down to keeping life in perspective.
“KCU was the best decision for me and my family,” Gilliland said. “It’s close enough to where my parents can be there and I can still spend time with them. The education that a person receives there is excellent, too. It’s more than just basketball. There’s more to life than that.”
As far as Adam Betten and Grady Lowe are concerned, Kentucky Christian got a steal — especially when one considers how Gilliland conducts himself off of the field of play.
“Cole’s a great kid,” Betten said. “He’s absolutely a fantastic basketball player, but he’s a better person than anything else. KCU got a good one. He’s going to do well on the floor for them, but he’s also going to do well in the classroom. He’s going to represent our community well, and I’m sure that he’ll shine while he’s there.”
“We’re tickled to death to sign Cole,” Lowe said. “He’s a great kid who works hard, he’s coachable, and he’s the valedictorian of his class. He’s exactly what we look for in a student-athlete. When he came to visit, he fit right in with the players when he worked out, so much so that it seemed like he had been on campus for three or four months rather than three or four minutes.”
In Gilliland, Kentucky Christian is signing a player that has put together a rich pedigree throughout his high school career.
Gilliland, who capped off his stellar basketball career with a sectional title, a district championship, and a regional final berth following a thrilling double-overtime victory against Grove City Christian en route to a 24-3 record this past season, led his unit to a 72-24 overall record during his time in a Clay uniform and earned All-SOC honors in three of his four seasons with the Panthers’ basketball unit.
He added Division IV Second Team All-Southeast District honors to his nameplate after obtaining Third Team accolades in 2016, and earned All-Southeast District honors in baseball last May, as well. As the three-hole hitter for a baseball program that has won nine out of its last 11 ballgames, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gilliland repeat the honors on the diamond, as well.
“It was such an amazing ride,” Gilliland said of the unit’s run to the regional finals. “It’s something that I will always remember and cherish. It was nice to leave a mark like that for a school that hadn’t appeared in a regional final in 48 years. “It’s been a great senior year. I’ll miss Clay a lot. It’s been one heck of a way to finish a high school career.”
While the 6-4 standout proved to be an excellent scorer, as his 1,000 points and 14 points per bout in back-to-back seasons suggest, it was Gilliland’s ability to make an impact in different facets of the game, even when the senior wasn’t scoring, that made the standout post player such a lethal threat throughout the course of his career.
“That’s one of the best qualities about Cole,” Betten said of Gilliland’s versatility. “He has all of the tools. He can sit on the inside, defend, rebound, and block shots, but he can also handle the ball and sees the floor extremely well, too. He led us in assists in several games this year, and for him to be able to control the ball, push the tempo, find open guys, and step out and shoot, you really can’t replace a player like that. He does it all. We’re going to miss him, obviously. However, we knew that he was going to get to this point because he’s put a lot of time in the gym. It’s a great day for him and his family. We’re all proud of him.”
Those skills sound familiar? That’s because they were all skills that Hayden Dunn had when the former Valley standout led his unit to a regional semifinal appearance in 2014. Dunn is coming off of a season where the junior just wrapped up his second consecutive First-Team National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association (NCCAA) All-American accolade en route to leading the nation in points per game (24.2) while finishing second in rebounds per contest (10.5) on 52.5 percent shooting from the field and 37.9 percent shooting from the free throw stripe.
Dunn is coming off of a season where the junior just wrapped up his second consecutive First-Team National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association (NCCAA) All-American accolade en route to leading the nation in points per game (24.2) while finishing second in rebounds per contest (10.5) on 52.5 percent shooting from the field and 37.9 percent shooting from the free throw stripe. The Lucasville native, along with all nine of his teammates, are coming back from a unit that won 14 out of its last 16 affairs en route to the NCCAA National Championship Game.
What’s scary about that, you ask? One, Dunn’s coming back next year, and two, Lowe says that Gilliland has the potential to leave the same kind of impact that Dunn is currently leaving on the KCU men’s basketball program.
“Cole’s a tremendous young man and is also talented basketball-wise, so he’s going to fit into our program right away,” Lowe said. “I’ve got him ticketed to replace our two-time, soon to be three-time All-American in Hayden Dunn. He can be that type of player for us, and he’ll get playing time right away. We feel fortunate that we were able to sign a player of his caliber, and he’s young, and he’s going to grow some more, so his best days are ahead of him. He can really make an impact against all of the teams that we will play. They will know who Cole is before the 2017-18 season is over with.”
“I’ve talked to Hayden a little bit,” Gilliland said. “He’s a really good basketball player, and I’m excited to learn from him.”
“That just shows how good the basketball has been here lately (in Scioto County),” Betten said. “For Cole and Hayden to be able to take their games to the next level and step it up and play, we’re very proud of them. Cole’s represented Clay extremely well this year, and I know that he’s going to continue to as it goes forward.”
According to Lowe, Gilliland’s also developed quite a rapport with his future teammates — an impressive thing to see for any athlete that’s still in high school.
“The players like Cole,” Lowe said. “They kept asking me, ‘When’s Cole going to sign? Is Cole going to sign?’ They were excited when they heard he was coming. I am absolutely tickled to death that he’s going to come to KCU and play four years for us.”
In Gilliland’s eyes, the signing not only reunites him with his older sister, Lexie — who has proven herself to be quite the college hoopster in her own right at KCU — but ends a journey that the senior has worked long hours for.
“It feels really good,” Gilliland said. “I know (Kentucky Christian University) really well. My sister (Lexie) has been there for a couple of years now, so I know the school and the basketball programs very well. It feels good to finally be able to take this step.”
However, it’s a step that Betten and Lowe know is well-deserved for a young man who has kept working — both as a student and as an athlete.
“Cole puts the right things first,” Betten said. “He’s a tremendous young man, and we’re very proud of him.”
“If you were to draw up what you would want in a basketball player, Cole is it,” Lowe said. “He’s a great fit and is exactly what we look for, and what all colleges should look for, in a student-athlete. If all college athletes were like Cole, boy, what an easy job these coaches would have!”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7