Prep Sports: Salisbury salutes three title teams
By Mike London
SALISBURY — A decade ago, Salisbury High’s athletic program was suffering through its own version of the Great Depression.
At least as far as the high-profile, flagship sports.
A 3-8 football season in the fall of 2000 was followed by the girls and boys basketball squads combining for a 10-34 record in a dreary winter in which a doubleheader sweep over anybody would have prompted a parade down Lincolnton Road.
The Hornets’ indoor struggle was followed by the arrival of spring and a 6-15 baseball season.
But that’s ancient history now.
Today, even with its enrollment down to 885, and with 72 percent of its students classified as “economically disadvantaged,” Salisbury has been rebuilt into a model environment that is churning out major scholars as well as ACC athletes.
A third of the student body participates in a sport, test scores are soaring like Darien Rankin over a high-jump bar, and accolades for classroom performance are pouring in at the state and national levels.
Principal Windsor Eagle and football coach/athletics director Joe Pinyan have been the primary engineers of a remarkable renaissance that has made the Hornets a statewide force in a staggering range of sports at the 2A level.
“It’s the kids,” Pinyan said modestly. “When you’ve got kids like ours, all you do is get in a seat and hang on.”
It’s not a difficult chore to find city schools that excel in football, basketball and track, but what makes the Hornets so unusual is that they’re also exceptional in sports such as tennis, golf, soccer and cross country.
The Wachovia Cup is the measuring stick of across-the-board athletic performance, and the Hornets have placed in the top 10 in the 2A Cup race eight straight school years and are a lock to make it nine.
Salisbury teams won three state titles in 2008-09, took three more banners in 2009-10, and have already put three plaques in the trophy case in the current school year.
Girls tennis, football and girls basketball already have celebrated titles. Eagle expects that to be only the foundation for an epic effort.
“We have a strong possibility of five state championships with boys track and boys golf,” he said.
SHS supporters and parents staged a tasty feast in the school cafeteria on Sunday— barbecue, chicken, burgers and all the fixings — to honor the athletes and coaches on those three title teams.
While the girls basketball squad is still awaiting their rings, the football and tennis players recently received their jewelry.
Rankin, the senior star of the football team’s defense, displayed his ring of honor on a necklace.
Linebacker and state-championship game hero Kavari Hillie liked the feel of the heavy hardware in the pocket of his jeans.
“The rings are big and they look good,” said standout linebacker Tre Jackson, who expects to either play football or wrestle in college next fall. “We’ve got something to show now. I know I’m going to love walking around with this ring.”
Offensive lineman Marqui Ross sported his shiny band on a finger. It was a bigger buddy for the ring he earned with the state-championship track team last spring.
“This new ring means a lot because it will always remind me how hard we worked for it,” said Ross, who expects to continue his education and playing career at North Carolina Central. “It took all of us, and it took a lot of us four years.”
Reciting each jersey number from memory — No. 2 Rankin, No. 3 John Knox, No. 4 Riley Gallagher, and so on down the line — Pinyan called each of his players, one by one, to the front of the room.
When they arrived, offensive line coach Daniel Yow handed each athlete one of the Olympics-style gold medals that was part of the haul for winning the 2AA football title.
“The state gives you about 35 of those medals, but we needed to come up with 60,” Pinyan said. “That’s why we waited until today.”
If Pinyan ever gets tired of coaching, his future in stand-up comedy looks promising. He opened his remarks with a tongue-in-cheek dig at the three-time 3A football champs, who reside over in Mount Ulla.
“One of the other schools in the county gave out rings last night, and they had a guest speaker (Catawba coach Chip Hester),” Pinyan said. “But, heck, we’re so used to winning state championships here, we don’t need a guest speaker.”
Hornet supporters hooted happily. It’s good to know that the Salisbury-West football rivalry is alive and well.
While West has put together a magnificently consistent football program (46 straight wins — and counting), Salisbury’s rise to prominence this fall was more surprising, especially when the Hornets, who were very inexperienced on defense, began the season 3-3.
But they won their next 10, including stirring comeback wins at Ludwig Stadium in fierce playoff scraps with Berry and Shelby.
Salisbury trailed Berry 21-7 at halftime and trailed Shelby 14-0 with less than 8 minutes left. Knox, Romar Morris, Dominique Dismuke and their teammates still found a way to get it done.
“Our kids kept working week after week to improve and finally earned that recognition and success that had eluded us,” assistant coach David Johnson said. “Against Berry and Shelby, they were placed in very tough situations, but they wouldn’t give up. Then in the championship game (a 30-0 waxing of Elizabeth City Northeastern), we got momentum on our side early, and so much of football is emotion and momentum.”
Pinyan understands how difficult it was — you have to be lucky as well as good — to win his first state title. As AD, he salutes the sensational success of the girls tennis and basketball teams.
Both are three-peaters.
“Those programs just keep piling up the championships,” he said. “Hats off to them because they are very dominant programs. I guess the football team tried to match them by being dominant in our last game.”
Isis Miller, a bright student and steady basketball player who is headed to Winston-Salem State, said the basketball team’s ride to a 27-1 season under coach Chris McNeil was a joy.
“I loved my team,” Miller said. “We’ve played with each other for such a long time, and we get along. There was no drama with this team. Just tons of fun.”
David Simons, who was huge for the Hornets in three fall sports, believe it or not — football, soccer and cross country — expects the football championship to create tons of fun for many years to come.
“This ring sums it all up,” he said. “You know you won, but then when you get that ring it’s kind of a reality check that you really did it. The ring is big, so people are always going to ask about it, and we’ll get to continue to brag. We’ll keep retelling our story, and we’ll never, ever get tired of it.”
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