New River Gorge Wins the Big Game and the Title of America's Best Crag

posted by dpm on 09/02/2013

"It was a game of epic proportions. No one ever expected that two teams of climbers could bring that level of heat to the court." -Sock Monkey Coach Kenny Parker

The third annual Big Game for the title of America's best crag went down this past weekend between the Red River Gorge Red Rockets and the New River Gorge Sock Monkeys. After a first year win, followed by a devastating shut out last year, the Monkeys were victorious and the Gorge Cup will reside at the New River Gorge until next year. The New River Gorge is officially America's Best Crag until August of 2014.

As in past years, the game format was the same; standard street-rules, three on three, half-court basketball. Shots count for one point, long shots count for two, and the first team to 21 wins the game. There are three exhibition games on the first night that don't count toward the win. On the second night, the teams play three games and the Gorge Cup, and title of Best Crag in America, go to the best of three winner.

The Red River Gorge Red Rockets with Pizza kingpin Miguel Ventura, Tillman the Red Rocketeer, and Coach Peter McDermott in the foreground. All photos courtesy of Levi Rose.

The New River Gorge Sock Monkeys with Coach Kenny Parker at right.

Going into this year's much-anticipated game, the Vegas odds were certainly favoring the Rockets. They'd done a hell of a job recruiting last year and had a well-rounded professional team that stomped the Monkeys. Betters this year were favoring the Rockets at 60/40, or even 70/30, but it spurred the Monkeys to up their recruitment game in the preseason. The Monkeys lucked into finding Bryant Baker, a local raft guide, climber, and ex-college baller. They also pulled an underhanded move by signing Pete Foister who played for the Rockets in the previous season. Sock Monkey Coach Kenny Parker seized the opportunity saying, "He hadn't signed a contract with the Rockets so he was fair game."

The Rockets had a few tricks up their sleeves as well. Nik Summers, a former minor league pro baller in Europe, came on for the Rockets and the rest of the team came back stronger. Mark Ventura had noticeably improved and Ben Ritchey was a proven asset. Going into the game they had a strong line-up including Dru Mack, Nik Summers, Patrick LaFree, Jordan Garvey, Ben Ritchey, and Dario and Mark Ventura.

The Rockets team and fans proudly display the Gorge Cup atop their team vehicle.

The Sock Monkey's line-up included Graham Elliot, Adam Ostrander, Craig Reger, Brian Vincent, Bryant Baker, Clayton, and Tony the Dough King, a former player of the celebrated Oak Hill High School state championship team. The stage was set for a showdown of epic proportions, but first, the exhibition games. The Monkeys won two out three exhibitions games which fueled the Rockets hunger for winning and pizza...and beer. Red River pizza kingpin Miguel Ventura accompanied both teams to Pies and Pints, the NRG's local pizza joint, and reportedly nodded approvingly. Could Pies and Pints pizza possibly be better than Miguel's Pizza? Is the battle for America's Best Crag Pizza in the works? That dispute could only be settled by a raucous game of Kickball or perhaps an arm-wrestling match between Miguel and Pies and Pints owner Kimberly Shingledecker, a former West Virginia Tough Woman boxer.

With a home court advantage, Monkey fans turned out in droves.

Surly Monkey fans prep for the Big Game.

Saturday, the day of the Big Game, kicked off with the Rockets getting to sample some of the New River Gorge's impeccable climbing routes. "This stone is really good," they surely thought. "Could this possibly be America's Best Crag? Could it possibly be better than our world famous Red River Gorge?" The fear was palpable as they stepped onto the court, but the team rallied in front of the cheering crowd of nearly 200 fans.

Kicking things off is the traditional coaches chug-off. Coach Parker defeats Coach McDermott by a narrow margin.

Rocket players Mark Ventura and Nik Summers came out strong in the first game, nailing multiple two-pointers from the outside. The Monkeys put up a good fight but it was the Red that took the first game by a narrow margin of 21 to 19. The Monkey's were shaken to the core but Coach Parker offered a pep talk between games. "I told them you live by the three, you die by the three," he said. "In this case we were talking about two point shots but the point is the same. I could tell it was wearing the Rockets down and if we stepped up our defense we could win game two."

Going into game two, Coach Parker also told 6'7" Clayton that he'd give him 20 bucks for every dunk he made over the Rockets. Since there is no rule book, it remains unclear if bribing the players is legal, but it worked. The Monkeys upped their defense, Clayton pulled off six dunks throughout the series (much to the chagrin of Parker) and Elliot was a force to be reckoned with on the inside. The Monkeys took game two with a score of 21 to 15.

The crowd was going insane heading into the tie-breaker game with the title of America's Best Crag hanging in the balance. Would the Gorge Cup remain with the perfect pockets, gritty texture, and sweeping overhangs of the Red River Gorge, or would it be reclaimed by the bullet-hard sandstone and geometric architecture of the New River Gorge?

One of Clayton's $20 Monkey Dunks. Money in the bank. 

Coach Parker recalls the final moments of the game as being "so heated I had to leave my A-team in the whole time. Both teams were playing like pros. I knew then that we were seeing the two best crags in the country on the court." With the crowd cheering and red-faced coaches screaming, the Monkeys barely pulled off their 2nd Gorge Cup victory with a score of 21 to 17.

The Rockets look on in disbelief as their title of America's Best Crag hangs in the balance.

With the Gorge Cup in the hands of the Monkeys, the competitive atmosphere immediately dissolved and America's two best crags came together for dinner and drinks catered by Diogi's Mexican Cantina and Bridge Brew Works. DJ Kurt Smith spun the tables at the after party and Red River fire starter Spencer Victory set off one of the over-the top fireworks displays that he's known for. The fireworks were so outrageous that it prompted a local war vet to ride over on an ATV "ready to fight," but the situation was quelled by Coach Parker and the fireworks were shut down.

The Gorge Cup, once again in the hands of the New River Gorge, America's Best Crag.

Coach Parker gets ceremoniously doused by his players.

Spectators flood the court after the Big Game.

Dancing, beer, and friendship prevailed and the heated rivalry, as always, was forgotten about until next year. One spectator commented, "I've been to climbing areas all over the country and what happened here tonight is really special. The two best crags coming together and having so much respect and admiration for one another is just so cool. It's clear that these two pitted rivals are the best of friends and the Big Game is just a reason to get together and play hard. I can't wait until next year." The Big Game will return to the Red River Gorge on the half-court behind Miguel's Pizza in August of 2014. Will the Red River Rockets reclaim the title of America's Best Crag, or is the Gorge Cup destined to stay at the New? 

See all the great photos from the Big Game in Levi Rose's Facebook album.