East girls ripe for winning
GRANITE QUARRY — “If not us, who? If not now, when.” That is a mantra that traces back to Hillel the Elder (10 B.C.) and has been quoted down through the centuries by religious leaders and politicians alike.
Now it should apply to the latest version of the East Rowan girl’s basketball program. The learning curve is complete and the character building is finished. Now it is time for the Mustang ladies to see just how far they can go as a team.
“The whole thing has been a process since I took over,” says Coach Danielle Porter, now entering her fourth season. “Putting it all together has taken a while. They have bought into the system and the girls are running it fluidly now...We are finally at that point where we can push ahead and be very competitive and good.”
During each of her first two seasons, Porter’s teams won eight games. Last year they broke through with a 15-11 record (4th place) in a talented North Piedmont Conference and made the state 3A playoffs. Now they expect to take it up another notch with a balanced and experienced team.
“We have been in a rebuilding stage the past three season,” says stellar senior center Karleigh Wike. “I think we have put in the time and the work and we are finally there. This is the season where it pays off.”
Any true success for this year’s Mustang team will depend heavily on the performance and leadership of Wike. The 6-4 post player is the top scorer (13.9), rebounder (12.9) and shot blocker (4.9) from last season and is a two-time All-County and All-Conference performer. Just last week she signed a letter of intent to play Division I basketball for the Richmond Spiders of the Atlantic 10 next year. But first she has unfinished business at East Rowan.
“I have a bunch of personal goals but I want to do anything I can to help my team go as far as they can,” Wike said. “We have the potential to do big things this season.”
Wike’s importance to the team’s success is obvious since she scored in double figures in 21 of 26 games last year and posted 15 double-doubles (points and rebounds). In one game against A.L. Brown, Wike notched a triple-double with 17 points, 16 rebounds and 11 blocks. In another game against NPC champ North Iredell she raked down 20 rebounds. Her 330 points last season gives her 823 for her varsity career and she will certainly surpass the 1000 point plateau soon.
“Karleigh is at the point where she doesn’t have to prove anything,” Porter notes. “It has already been proven. I am just looking for her to be a leader, be aggressive and just do the things she does on an everyday basis.”
Wike’s effectiveness and the team’s success also revolves around the other half the East twin tower combo, 6-3 junior Kelli Fisher. She averaged 10.9 points and 10.2 rebound last year while blocking 33 shots. “Kelli is certainly no second fiddle,” Porter says, “She and Karleigh have learned to work in tandem and they feed off of each other. Kelli is so strong she can’t be moved and she has improved her conditioning tremendously.”
Then there is the player Porter calls “..the key” when it comes to running the Mustang engine. Junior forward Amani Ajayi (5-9) is back and provides a lot of different weapons. “She is the most versatile player I have ever coached. She can run point, run forward, run center,” Porters said. “She is extremely physical and gets to a lot of loose balls.” Ajayi averaged 3.8 points and 4.1 rebounds last season and the key is to stay out of foul trouble.
In the backcourt East returns point guard Jocelyn Lowe, a 5-5 sophomore who led the team with 48 assists and 36 steals last season, Senior Lauren Thomas (5-9) is back at the shooting guard position where she led the team with 24 three-pointers last season. She averaged 5.8 points per game with 36 assists and 33 steals. “Joceylyn has great vision and is extremely cerebral and we are looking for her to be more of an offensive threat this season,” Porter says. “Lauren is our pure shooter and she is a great weak side rebounder which keeps other teams honest.”
With four of five starters back, East also has some depth at all positions including some size off the bench. Junior Shelby Benge (5-11), sophomore Melonye McCree (5-10) and junior Kennedy Lambert (5-11) provide critical relief minutes and inside power at the forward position. Junior Lara Drew (5-4) is new to the varsity this year and will back up Lowe at the point guard position.
The most intriguing additions to the Mustangs this season are twin sisters and shooting guards Shenique and Shenell Pharr. They’re both 5-5 sophomores who led last years’ 19-1 jayvee squad at East. The Pharr sisters are mirror-image twins, one is left-handed and the other righthanded “...and they kind of have that telepathic thing going that twins have,” Porter noted. What they add to the Mustang varsity this season is a tremendous amount of speed, great instincts and a winning attitude.
Coach Porter makes no bones about the Pharr twins and their potential. “They are not just the future of East Rowan basketball, they are the future of Rowan County basketball,” she predicted. “They are that good and by the time they are seniors they will be the most dominant players in the county in girls basketball.”
The current edition of East basketball enjoyed some great success this summer, winning the Catawba team camp championship and they hope the momentum carries over to the regular season in the newly assembled South Piedmont 3A Conference. East played most of the Cabarrus schools in the SPC in seasons past and feels it will fare well in the new league.
“Our team is really understanding what it takes to win and how to have that winning mentality.” Porter says. “For the past several years we have had athletes who played basketball but now we truly have basketball players. These girls are dedicated and ready to win.”
The journey starts tonight for the East girls as they travel to face non-conference foe Mount Pleasant then their home lid-lifter is Friday against South Davidson.