2011-12 Basketball: The cover story: Salisbury, North enjoy being state champs
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 23, 2011
By Ronnie Gallagher
SALISBURY — South Rowan girls basketball coach Jarrod Smith remembers walking into the all-county photo shoot at Catawba with Nicole Barringer last year and noticing something about the Salisbury girls.
The Hornets were having a ball.
“They were out there goofing around, grabbing the rim, trying to dunk a girls ball …” he recalled. “Then, they stepped out and started making threes.”
If there’s one thing you can count on when you get high school basketball players from Rowan County together, it’s that they’re going to have fun. Playing for a school within these borders is a little different from anywhere else.
Of course, to have a ball the kids need help — like huge crowds and enthusiasm unmatched in any other county in this state. And that goes for the girls as well as the boys.
“It’s neat to go into a gym knowing it’s going to be a packed house,” Carson girls coach Brooke Misenheimer said. “My girls love it. It’s really cool to know the county is so supportive.”
Come to the Sam Moir Christmas Classic at Catawba for the first time and you’re amazed at how 3,000-plus try to pack into the 2,600-seat Goodman Gymnasium. But come to any county rivalry — Carson-South, East-West, Salisbury-North — and you better arrive early. Seats are simply hard to find.
“By the time the jayvee boys are at halftime, we’ve already got a lot of people in the stands,” Smith said.
“Fans at every school support their teams,” Smith added, “especially South Rowan. We never have a problem filling the house.”
Carson boys coach Brian Perry, a former East Rowan star, says he enjoys being in a Rowan County gym as much as a coach as he did a player.
“You always know you’re going to play a good team and that there’s always going to be a great crowd,” Perry said. “Some of my favorite times are walking into a gym like South Rowan when it’s filled. We tell the kids these are the most exciting times they’ll ever have.”
Last year, the gyms were packed because the Salisbury girls and North Rowan boys were playing basketball. And that’s always exciting.
In 2010, football gave Rowan County two state champions three months later, Salisbury and North duplicated the feat in hoops. The Hornet girls destroyed East Bladen for its third straight crown while North’s boys rallied to beat Pender County to claim the 1A title.
North’s Andrew Mitchell will quickly tell you his toughest competition wasn’t against Pender or the Yadkin Valley Conference. It was right here in Rowan County.
“If you’re a spectator, it’s fun to watch,” Mitchell said. “If you’re a coach and have to go up against (Jason) Causby at Salisbury or Mike Gurley at West, it’s tough. That’s our four nonconference games this year. We play as good a nonconference schedule as anyone in the state.”
North was a dominating team, as East Rowan found out.
“They overwhelm you with their defense,” coach Trey Ledbetter said.
East won just once last year, but Ledbetter appreciated the fans’ support. He’s a former Mustang player and he says the packed gyms are nothing new to him.
“I absolutely love the atmosphere in Rowan County,” Ledbetter said. “There’s just so much passion for high school sports. There’s a lot of success here and everybody enjoys it.”
Causby started coaching at Concord. But the West graduate longed to leave Cabarrus County and come home.
“It’s a high level of basketball but it’s not the same,” he said.
Coaches love the atmosphere as much as the players.
“Anytime I forget I don’t have hair on my head, all I have to do is go on the road in Rowan County,” West coach Mike Gurley laughed. “I find out I’m bald-headed, my head’s shiny and I’m kin to Mr. Clean.”
Of course, coaches like Gurley and Mitchell can crack jokes with as many titles and wins as they have on their resumes. Mitchell has won three state titles in a row (the first two with Salisbury’s girls). Gurley’s just 45 years old but already has 415 wins and three state titles to his credit. His teams once won 61 straight games.
The Gurley teams that had Scooter Sherrill and the ones with guys named Donte Minter, Junior Hairston and Phillip Williams had rock-star status. That’s the way North was last season when it walked into a Chatham Central or a South Davidson. People just stared, oohing and ahhing.
“It’s not hatred,” Gurley explains. “It’s respect — a need to let (you) know they are a good basketball team. And we love that challenge. We don’t always win, but it’s usually a really good basketball game. The fans get their money’s worth. The kids throw their hearts on the floor. And when we walk away, both teams are better.”
You couldn’t get much better than North and Salisbury were last season.
“We played a pretty decent first half against Salisbury,” Misenheimer said.
That’s a moral victory. The Cougars eventually lost by 25, one of the closest games Chris McNeil’s girls played all season.
“They are a prime example of what a defensive-minded team can do,” Misenheimer said. “They take so much pride in stopping people. Within a couple of minutes, they can lay an opponent out.”
When told this was a rebuilding year at Salisbury, Misenheimer laughed.
Smith laughed, too.
“All I can say is, they’ll be great,” he said.
So will North Rowan’s boys. Mitchell is probably cautioning some fans not to get ahead of themselves and hand the state-title hardware to the Cavaliers before they play a game.
Mitchell said the key to winning is the kids must buy into each other and the coaches.
“You see so many teams in high school, college and pros loaded with talent and they don’t win,” he said. “The key ingredient is kids liking each other and respecting the coaches.
“I don’t know that they have to like you as a coach. They just have to respect your position. Last year, we had that chemistry with player-player, coach-player and coach-coach.”
It all added up to being the best 1A boys basketball team in North Carolina.
And when it was over, Mitchell looked across the Reynolds Coliseum floor at his team.
“The thing that touched me wasn’t winning the state championship,” Mitchell smiled. “It was seeing the smiles on those guys’ faces that said, ‘I’m a state champion.’ That was the best thing in the world.”