It’s been a 20-year wait for the Mustangs
By Mike London
Twenty years ago, East Rowan’s boys basketball team began an improbable march to a conference championship with a shocking victory on Northwest Cabarrus’ court.
East hasn’t won a regular-season championship since, but tonight the 2007-08 Mustangs can complete the same mission in the same building.In the last 40 seasons, Rowan boys basketball teams have won or shared 48 regular-season conference championships. The 1987-88 East team is conspicuous on that long list in that it is the only conference champion that didn’t have a winning season.
Forty-six of those 48 title-winning teams won at least 60 percent of their games. The two that didn’t were the 1964-65 North Rowan Cavaliers, who tied for first in the NPC despite an 11-10 overall mark, and the 1987-88 Mustangs who won the SPC outright despite a 13-13 overall record.
Rick Roseman was in the fourth of his 13 seasons as East’s head coach in 1987-88, and those miracle Mustangs, who went 10-2 in a seven-team SPC, would provide his only championship.
The reason East didn’t have a better overall record was every Rowan County team was very good.
South, which had Larry Lentz, still the Raiders’ all-time leading scorer, was 14-13 playing a 4A schedule.
North was led by Edward Kesler and junior Brian Paige, who had a 50-point night his senior year. The Cavaliers were 15-10.
West, one of East’s SPC rivals, posted a 15-11 mark and had devastating scorers in Chris Sherrill and David Redmond.
Salisbury had one of the best teams in county history. It won its first 28 games and finished 30-2. The Hornets had Fred Campbell, Bryan Withers, Warren Alexander, Donald Jenkins and on and on and on.
Good players, including East’s Jon Bost, Jon Huneycutt and Tom File didn’t make all-county first or second teams. Senior Daniel Sifford, who averaged 17.1 points, was the SPC champs’ lone all-county representative. East opened that fateful season 0-5 ó two losses to North Rowan, two to North Stanly and one to Salisbury.
Then the Mustangs split two with South Rowan before losing to Salisbury and West Rowan in the Christmas tournament.
When the calendar turned to 1988, the Mustangs stood 1-8 and had to be thinking more about survival then winning the SPC. Then it snowed, snowed and snowed some more.
When East traveled to Northwest on Jan. 14 to finally open SPC play, weather had kept the Mustangs idle since the Christmas tournament. The trip to Northwest was supposed to be less fun than the mumps. The Trojans, who had high-scoring Mark Forester and future Catawba Indian Jeff Vaughn, had won 29 SPC games in a row.
“My house was broken into that same day we played at Northwest,” Roseman remembers. “I didn’t even ride the bus to the game, and when I got there and sat down on the bench, I remember asking the players if I could come over and watch the Carolina game with them after we were through. My television had been stolen.”Roseman had called up jayvee Brian White, and he scored 12 points. Sifford hit five 3s. East stunned the Trojans 65-64, and an equally stunned Roseman informed the Post he’d rather be 2-8 and 1-0 in his league, than 8-2 and 0-1 in his league. More prophetic words have rarely been uttered by a coach.
East was the talk of the county for about 24 hours. The next opponent was Salisbury ó a 20-point defeat ó and Roseman’s team was 2-9.
But in the SPC, things went OK. Sifford hit seven 3s to sink Central Cabarrus, and the Mustangs were 3-9, but 2-0 where it counted. After East edged Forest Hills, ripped Sun Valley, smacked West Rowan and survived a rugged rematch with Northwest Cabarrus, it was 6-0 in the SPC.
“We had a great group of kids that had just never won,” Roseman said. “People have asked me ever since then, ‘What did you do?’ But I wasn’t coaching any different than I ever did. Something just clicked.”
Just when the bandwagon started getting full, East lost 63-62 at home to Concord on a buzzer-beater. Bost had free throws to seal it. He missed.
East had to play a talented Concord team led by future Catawba guard Jeff Lippard again a week later. Both squads entered Rimer Gym with 7-1 SPC records, but East took control of the race with a 46-43 victory. Bost got payback. He got every rebound.
East bumped its SPC mark to 9-1 and evened its overall record at 10-10 with a pulsating victory over Central Cabarrus. That same night, Concord lost to Northwest to give East a two-game lead with two left to play.
On Feb. 19, East blew out Forest Hills to clinch the fourth league title in school history. The others were in 1961 (three-way tie), 1974 and 1975, so the drought had lasted 13 long years.
Sherrill scored 29 points as third-place West Rowan beat East in its regular-season finale. Then the Mustangs were upset by Forest Hills in the SPC tourney and dropped to 11-12 overall.
In the 3A state playoffs, East beat South Iredell and North Iredell. The Mustangs fell to Statesville in the third round for a 13-13 season.
East scored 1,461 points, while allowing 1,450, so statistically it was a 13-13 club. But it also had intangibles that couldn’t be measured and it was an outright league champion.
East fans have waited two decades for another title, and now former Northwest coach Greg McKenzie is close to giving them one. The Mustangs (18-3, 14-2) clinch a share of the league crown and a No. 1 seed for the NPC tournament and 3A state playoffs if they win tonight at Northwest (18-4, 14-2).
East won 74-65 when the teams squared off in Granite Quarry, but this will be a tough assignment. It’s Senior Night for a group that has been good for a long time and the Trojans haven’t been beaten in “The Pit” all season.
Roseman will be there to watch it.
“I really want to see our guys win,” he said. “Then we could celebrate together for two championship teams.”
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.