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Dogged Falcons plugged away for motivator Gurley

By Mike London
Salisbury Post
Silver dog tags swirled around the neck of Mike Gurley as he watched the NCAA Sweet 16 games.
Gurley is West Rowan’s boys basketball coach, not a soldier, but when he’s in contact with his dog tags, it’s easy to reach back and grab memories from a season he’ll never forget.
Gurley is the Post’s Rowan County Coach of the Year for the sixth time in 11 years since he left Lexington for Mount Ulla. No boys coach has been honored so frequently, but Gurley stood out again in a strong field.
Greg McKenzie kept winning at East Rowan, where winning seemed impossible a half-dozen years ago.
Jason Causby directed Salisbury to 19 wins and CCC and Sam Moir tournament championships.
Brian Perry kept Carson moving forward. North’s Kelly Everhart and South’s John Davis coached teams that never stopped playing, even when quitting would have been the easy thing.
But Gurley’s season was magic. He had an awesome player in junior K.J. Sherrill, but his No. 2 scorer averaged 7.1 points. No county team in the past decade has won 20 games without multiple, double-digit scorers.
Gurley’s guys scored 55.8 points a game, while allowing nearly 52, so they probably should have been 15-13.
Instead, West was 21-7.
“There is some satisfaction in how hard we played,” Gurley said. “When you know you’ve gotten a group effort from everyone, it makes you feel pretty good.”
Gurley’s seniors ó Clay Browning, Jeremy Kimbrough and Jonathan Ellis ó had combined for 53 varsity points prior to this season, but all three carved out meaningful roles.
Three of Gurley’s top athletes ó sophomores K.P. Parks and Chris Smith and junior Kaleb Kimber ó were limited by injuries. That makes West’s season even more remarkable.
Gurley credits assistants Willie “Mr. West Rowan” Ellis, Ken Clarke, Kevin Parks and Jerry Sherrill. If they don’t stay upbeat, the team doesn’t.
Also credit K.J. Sherrill. He was held under 10 points once. He brought it every night, whether he was double-teamed or tripled.
West beat talented Mooresville twice. West beat towering Lake Norman twice. West gave NPC champion Northwest Cabarrus a beating in Mount Ulla.
“For a lot of people, West Rowan was K.J. ó and who?” Gurley said. “But there always seemed to be that certain kid at a certain time that came through, and that made it a fun bunch to coach. It might be Myles Moore making a shot. It might be Chris Smith with a block. Maybe it’s B.J. Sherrill getting 11 boards.”
With Kimber (back) and Parks (ankle) ailing early, West accepted a new personality. The Falcons were grinders for the first time in Gurley’s tenure, but they learned a 48-44 win counts as much as an 88-60 blowout in the standings.
“I had teams a few years ago that would come to the gym and just take you out,” Gurley said. “This year it was a group of guys that was going to find a way to win a ballgame.
“They bought into what they needed to do the very first day, and with all the injuries, I just had to trust guys and put them out there. But they always played together. That relaxed me.”It was such a chore to score that the Falcons could lose to anyone. Setbacks to South Rowan (6-20) and Carson (6-18) were proof West had no margin for error.
But Gurley stayed calmer than he ever has. He viewed losses as teaching tools, not reasons to shatter clipboards. He stressed the positives his players offered, rather than dwelling on negatives. If Smith got down about a shooting slump, Gurley reminded him how splendid a rebounder he was.
“We suffered losses that surprised people and those losses surprised us too,” Gurley said. “But the losses told me I had a special group. No one ever tried to jump ship. No one pouted. When we lost to South, it was like, ‘Wow, we just lost to South. We need to get better.’ They handled every loss without finger-pointing. The attitude was always to get back to work the next day.”
The dog tags were handed out by Cornerstone youth minister Bryan Huff.
The dog tags included a Bible verse from Philippians that reminded each Falcon to have faith in his teammates, to stay together and to always attack.
“I loved it,” Gurley said. “The guys loved it. They didn’t won’t to take the tags off. At practice, I was afraid someone would get hurt, and we’d have to take them off for a little while.”
West posted a 14-4 NPC record and placed third, as Gurley steadily revised his projected win total upward.
When West faced T.C. Roberson to open the 3A playoffs, it was 19-6.
Gurley describes the day West traveled to Asheville to play TCR as “unifying.” The players departed at 1 p.m., went through a shootaround at Lenoir-Rhyne, ate dinner, and then went out and played one of the great games in school history. West won 60-56 in OT.
“All those tough games we’d played prepared us,” Gurley said. “We’re down 10 with four minutes left, but every single Falcon is thinking, ‘Hey, let’s keep playing and we’ll see what happens.’
“We came back and we got the stop we needed when K.J. and Clay made a great switch. That game was like one of those ABA games that only 21 people actually saw and there are only oral tales handed down, but I was extremely proud of my team. Just an incredible gut-check. One of the most gratifying wins I’ve had.”
West rolled at Catholic in the second round for its 21st win. Browning scored 14, one less than Sherrill.
“Clay turns into Greg Paulus in Charlotte,” Gurley said with a chuckle.
The season ended at Hickory 24 hours after the Falcons beat Catholic. Hickory was tough, but a healthy Kimber was as explosive as Nitroglycerin and West had a chance.
“I wish we’d had a day to prepare for Hickory,” Gurley said. “They were good and maybe they beat us anyway, but I would have loved to have had one day.”
Gurley may have orchestrated one more miracle.
He settles for 21 victories, plus a set of dog tags that will provide a lifetime of positive memories.
“When we were 61-0, everyone came out to see us, and I wish they had all come out this year,” Gurley said. “They’d have liked watching us because these kids did the right thing. They played the game without attitudes and they played it together.”
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Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or mlondon@salisburypost.com.

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