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Prep basketball: First day of practice

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.com
SPENCER — Between its first boys basketball championship in 1986 and its second one last March, North Rowan waited 25 years.
The interval between titles No. 2 and No. 3 may be considerably shorter.
Coach Andrew Mitchell was understandably pumped up as the Cavaliers took their first baby-steps toward additional glory on Monday.
“Oh, man, yeah, this is an exciting time every year,” Mitchell said. “The gym smells the same and the air feels the same. Even after 22 years of doing this, I always look forward to this day.”
It’s not like Mitchell’s Cavs are some run-and-shoot bunch. The most important attributes of last season’s 1A champs were defense, discipline, unselfishness, rebounding and balanced scoring.
With that in mind, North spent an hour on Monday without running or shooting.
The menu was basic 4-on-4 halfcourt drills in which Mitchell and his assistants patiently taught principles of team defense.
There were 16 candidates for jobs running through those drills, with four rotating teams distinguishable by a rainbow of jersey colors. There were reds, whites, blacks and golds.
Even if you’ve never seen North play, it wouldn’t have taken more than 15 seconds to figure out who the top dogs were. The guys in the black jerseys with green numerals — T.J. Bates, Jordan Kimber, Michael Connor and Michael Bowman — conducted their own personal clinic on the other dozen, moving the ball on offense, stealing it on defense.
All four were key contributors as North caught fire and won its final 11 games last season.
“Those four have got an understanding of what we’re doing and they do a great job,” Mitchell said. “But what I really like about them is how they’re leading. We’ve got a lot of inexperienced guys out there, but they’re helping teach them so we don’t have to slow down any.”
Departed standouts Sam Starks and Javon Hargrave steered the Cavs’ ship last season, and the experience they provided will be missed more than Hargrave’s stickbacks and Starks’ flying dunks.
“Great leadership was key last season,” Mitchell said. “From what I’ve seen, we’ll have that great leadership again.”
One opposing YVC coach looked at the deep Cavs last season, shook his head and figured their second string was good enough to contend for the league championship.
That will be the case again.
The Cavaliers qualified for the football playoffs, but Mitchell will have no shortage of experienced bodies once football ends — and he’ll have considerable size at his command.
Malik Ford and Statesville transfer Tydler Watlington, the football tight end, are large young men. They didn’t participate in Monday’s practice, but they arrived in time to watch some of it.
“I’ve been waiting all year for this,” said Ford, a 6-foot-7 junior with unlimited upside.
Also still busy with football are veterans Pierre Givens (“Most Outstanding” award at last year’s title game) and Mitchell expects good things from Oshon West.
West was a dynamic freshman for the Cavs in 2009-10 — averaging 12.2 points, including a 33-point eruption in the playoffs — but he transferred to North Hills prior to last season. He’s back at North Rowan.
The key to everything may be Kimber, who is strong, smart and slick and can score whenever he needs to. As good as he was in spurts, he was never 100 percent physically.
“It’s a blessing to see him healthy and happy,” Mitchell said. “His unselfishness makes him an outstanding player.”
It’s only Nov. 1, and March seems a lifetime away, but Mitchell already has been asked a thousand times if the Cavs can do it again. He doesn’t seem to mind.
“We can make another run,” he said quietly. “But we have to stay humble and keep working.”
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Monday’s practice had a different feel for Salisbury girls coach Chris McNeil.
Lots of new faces.
Theoretically, it’s a rebuilding year for the three-time defending 2A champs, but McNeil likes what he sees.
“We’ve got a group of three incoming freshmen that should make us competitive this year and the future should be fine,” he said.
Salisbury graduated four Division I standouts, but the cupboard is far from bare.
Swift Doreen Richardson returns along with multi-talented sophomore Brielle Blaire, MVP of the state title game.
“Brielle has improved her game tremendously, but the big change you see this year will be with her vocal leadership,” McNeill said. “She and Doreen are embracing the leadership role.”
Blaire isn’t just talking — she’s doing.
“When you’ve got Brielle out there leading the sprints, well, you feel like you’re going to be OK,” McNeil said.
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Carson girls coach Brooke Misenheimer has all five starters back from an 18-7 team and a reasonable chance for the school’s first NPC basketball championship. The Cougars may even challenge Salisbury’s stranglehold on the Sam Moir Christmas Classic. That event has been the Hornet Invitational the past eight seasons.
The Cougars, who still have point guard Kelly Dulkoski and sharpshooting Chloe Monroe, got started yesterday, with one eye fixed on the calendar. Their official season opener with Hickory Ridge is just 20 days away.
“For the first day, I thought girls really came to play,” Misenheimer said. “I think every single person on this team has bought in to what we’re doing, and a lot of girls put a lot of time in during the offseason. I hope we can live up to the high expectations.”
Misenheimer’s main concern at this point is all-county junior Allison Blackwell’s recovery from a sprained ankle suffered during volleyball season. Blackwell is going to be limited for a while.
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Meanwhile at West Rowan, coach Mike Gurley was in the starting lineup for the Falcons on the first day of practice out of necessity.
Most of his team is expected to be on the football field for a while yet. Nothing new there, but don’t feel sorry for Gurley. He still has star guard Keshun Sherrill.
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Jason Causby, who piloted Salisbury’s boys to four CCC tournament titles in a row from 2007-10 and three regular-season crowns in his five seasons at the helm, has returned to the Hornets after a year at North Hills.

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