All-County Basketball: Salisbury's McNeil girls coach of the year
By Ryan Bisesi
With the biggest game of Chris McNeil’s coaching career ahead of him, he had to bring in the big boys.
With the Hornets facing East Bladen in the 2A state title game for the second straight year, that meant going up against the imposing center Courtney Melvin, a East Carolina signee at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds. Intimidating, but she had nothing on Kiontae Rankin.
That’s right, McNeil brought in the brother of current Salisbury senior Darien Rankin in practice sessions the week of the game to simulate Melvin. Rankin, a former all-county nose guard for the Hornets, provided a colossal 6-foot-4, 390-pound presence that more than prepared Salisbury to deal with anything East threw at them in Chapel Hill.
The result? Melvin scored just 10 points on 3 of 7 shooting and Salisbury cruised to a win that was as easy as any of their Central Carolina Conference victories in a 76-44 romp.
McNeil’s outside the box and outside the gender thinking was at the forefront of another banner season for the premier girls basketball program in the state. The Hornets were McNeil’s first stop in the head coaching ranks a the high school level with a pretty successful trial run. McNeil, a ’92 graduate of Durham Hillside High and a Livingstone Alum, is the Post’s Coach of the Year after leading the Hornets to their third straight state championship and a 27-1 record. After losing to 4-A Charlotte Butler in the first game, Salisbury was unstoppable, reeling off 27 straight wins. The ride to another state championship was almost flawlessly smooth.
“It’s just a matter of keeping them focused and they’ve been focused all year,” McNeil said. “It’s just a blessing to be able to coach such a special group. What better way to end it than with another state title.”
With four of its starting five signed to play in college, the Hornets had an abundance of talent, but McNeil said it still had to be nurtured.
“Talent without discipline is an appetite for destruction,” McNeil said Wednesday from Goodman Gym. “They needed someone to come in and guide what was already in place. Some coaches come in and try to implement something new. We just kept it simple. My main focus was defensive intensity creates offensive success.”
That said, McNeil deters the success to his players. He coached at the middle school level for years and headed up boys AAU teams during the summer. Former Salisbury girls and North Rowan coach Andrew Mitchell helped McNeil get started in the coaching circuit through Bobby Jackson’s summer camp at Livingstone.
“The coaching’s the easy part,” he said. “The players are the ones that go out and do the work. I’m just lucky to be a part of something this special.”
And thanks to Mrs. McNeil, they were both state champions in 2011.
“My principal and athletic director called me to the office one day and said ‘we have an opportunity you won’t be able to say no to,’” McNeil said. “I told them I need to check with my wife. Once she approved it, the sky was the limit.”
There was little internal drama with the Hornets this season. Coming off their second-straight state title, the Hornets’ only adversity would be adjusting to a new coach after Mitchell left to coach the boys team at North.
“He came in and told us what we had to do,” said Player of the Year Ashia Holmes. “So we just did it.”
With so much experience on the roster, the Hornets overcame a lack of a big scorer and missing key reserve Doreen Richardson for several games during the regular season and playoffs.
“It’s a group of girls so you’re going to have situations come up,” Holmes said. “There were new girls coming in so everybody had to adjust. I think he was the right man for the position because he knew everybody.”
And now he knows how to win.