By ROB WITHAM
H-P Sports Correspondent
We all have that still small voice that, from time to time, will speak to us for various reasons. For Ralph “Rally” Axselle, his voice had a message for him a few months back while listening to a speech from Kevin Eastman, a former University of Richmond basketball player and long-time coach both in college and in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
“He was speaking, and he asked what is in the back of your mind that you really want to do that you’re not doing,” Axselle told The Herald Progress in an interview Monday. “What do you miss? You know what it is, it’s talking to you. I knew I wanted to get back into high school coaching.”
The opportunity came when Phil Reynolds ended his decade-long run at the helm of Atlee boys basketball, and Axselle jumped at the opportunity. He was named head coach April 4th and is already making his presence felt.
Axselle serves as Director of Basketball Operations at Rock It Sports, a multi-sport facility just off Parham Road in Henrico. There, he oversees a growing program of youth basketball teams, and has the honor of coaching his two sons. But the former head coach at Deep Run is thrilled to be back in high school basketball, and excited at the prospects in Raider Nation.
“I didn’t apply anywhere else. I thought (Atlee) would be a great fit for me and my family,” Axselle noted. “Last summer, I saw their JV summer team play here and I remembered seeing talent there, so I thought this was a good opportunity.”
Axselle has loads of experience, from assisting at his alma mater, Mills Godwin, for six years, to his Deep Run tenure, following that with two years as an assistant at Hampden-Sydney. His family never moved, and, after two seasons of commuting multiple times a week to Farmville, having two young sons, it was time for a change.
Enter Rock It Sports, founded in part by longtime friend George Bland, Jr. Axselle will continue there while coaching the Raiders, but as their basketball program has grown, so has their staff, which will help him to be able to devote the time necessary to grow Atlee’s program.
And, as opposed to his days at Deep Run, Virginia High School League (VHSL) rules regarding off-season contact and work with players have changed, allowing Axselle to already work on forging relationships with his newest team.
“You could do conditioning and stuff, but you couldn’t coach until November,” Axselle recalled. “Now, you can do more off-season stuff now. So it’s my job now to make sure they’re getting together and playing, shooting, and doing drills. It’s nice.”
One hope Axselle has is to build a team that will motivate the student body to come and support at more than just county rivalry games. He knows his work is cut out for him, as Atlee, and the other county schools, return to the Capital District for both regular season scheduling and postseason play with the ending of the conference format in June. But he is excited for the challenge of building a squad that can not just compete with Henrico, Varina, or Highland Springs, but defeat them as well.
“The key is, in a lot of other schools, they’re playing basketball all the time,” Axselle said. “In meeting with the Atlee players, I’ve already asked what they’re doing in the spring, who are you playing with, and there are more kids playing year round, they’re not just picking it up in November. We need a core group of kids that plays a lot. Then there are others who are athletic who can help you.”
The road to November and Axselle’s return to the high school sidelines has begun, thanks in part to that still small voice that led him to Atlee Station Road.