Newsmaker of the Year: The student athlete
By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — It was a year filled with news of people losing their jobs and homes.
Of rising gas prices. Higher tuition bills. Not enough food and clothing for the needy. More of us falling out of the middle class or below the poverty line.
Protests. Bickering politicians. Soldiers coming home wounded or dead from war.
Taken collectively, it wore us down at times, and we looked for places of refuge.
In Rowan County, we found energy, pride and community spirit just around the corner — at our high schools, where student athletes often performed at championship levels.
For that reason, the Salisbury Post news staff has voted the high school athlete as its 2011 Newsmaker of the Year.
In 2011, Salisbury and North Rowan high schools combined for seven state championships and incredibly exciting moments.
The North Rowan boys basketball team brought a community together with its storybook journey to the state title.
West Rowan High’s football team — winners of three state championships in a row — made it to a fourth championship final earlier this month, but had to settle this time for runner-up status.
Still, it was an amazing 3A-classification run.
• Salisbury High could be considered the capital of high school golf in North Carolina — both the men and women’s golf teams are reigning state champs.
• The Salisbury girls basketball team won its third 2A state championship in a row, and the girls tennis team captured its fourth consecutive title.
• The Salisbury boys soccer team grabbed the N.C. crown on a sudden-death goal in Cary after years of frustrating near-misses.
In the past four school years, Rowan County high schools have won 20 state titles. Since 2000, the county has been home to 31 state champions.
Many other Rowan County high school teams had highly successful seasons in 2011.
And even when the won-loss records of our high school squads were not so good, the student athletes continued training and competing, learning important lessons of teamwork, perseverance and character.
They kept us going — and ever hopeful — from the swim and cross-country teams to the softball, baseball and volleyball squads.
“Athletics go a long way in making the kids and community really feel good about themselves,” says North Rowan High Athletic Director Bryan Mills. “We’ve been fortunate to have good coaches and good athletes.”
On March 12 before a packed house at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, the North Rowan boys basketball team came back from a 14-point halftime deficit to defeat Pender County 64-57 — the school’s first state basketball championship in 25 years.
The team’s run united two towns — Spencer and East Spencer — and energized boosters for a school, which was hungry for success.
Because of declining enrollment, North Rowan had been forced into the 1A classification, which eliminated some of its longtime rivalries and forced the sports teams into long road trips to schools in Montgomery, Moore and Chatham counties.
The basketball team’s success under Coach Andrew Mitchell inspired the community.
“It brought back fans we haven’t seen in quite a few years,” Mills says. “It was a big boost to the spirit of the school.”
When it came time for the basketball team members to have state championship rings, the community came through.
The booster club, under the direction of President Chris Sifford, another North alumnus, has stepped up throughout the year, Mills says.
Under the direction of Coach Robert Steele, North Rowan High’s boys track also won a 1A state championship in the spring, with Sam Starks, Johnny Oglesby and Garland Archie winning individual state golds in the process.
Maybe no school in North Carolina enjoyed the success Salisbury High did in 2011 with its state championships in five different sports.
“It’s overwhelming just to have one,” says Salisbury High Athletic Director and Head Football Coach Joe Pinyan, who credits Principal Windsor Eagle with putting the right people in the right positions for the sports program to be successful.
The championships create a sense of pride throughout the school. “Kids love being a part of it and feed off each other — and coaches, too,” Pinyan says.
But Pinyan emphasizes that the importance of competing in sports, even without the championships, is learning how to be a team player.
Later in life, it makes the student athletes better co-workers, family members and community leaders.
“We want to teach our kids to be better men and women,” Pinyan says.
Mills says competing in sports helps in keeping kids motivated in the classroom. The school dropout rate among student athletes is much lower than among non-athletes, Mills says.
And to stay on the field, he notes, the students have to keep up their grades.
The Dixon household in Salisbury has a pair of state championship winners — Roy Dixon, who captained the boys golf team, and Spencer Dixon, an All-Conference defender on the soccer team.
As a junior, Roy Dixon won the individual 2A state golf title, but the Salisbury High team came up short on the final day.
This past spring, Salisbury freshman Eric Edwards captured the individual state medal honors on the way to the team’s winning the N.C. 2A championship.
Dixon says the team win as a senior was a much more gratifying experience, something he loved sharing with his teammates.
A championship run — the practices, training, matches and each step through the playoffs — builds an incredible camaraderie, Dixon says.
“We set our goal to win a state championship,” he adds. “When you have that goal, that’s the only thing you think about.”
But it’s also a lesson a student takes into other aspects of his life, says Dixon, now a freshman golfer and business and finance major at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
A student can apply it, for example, to studying for semester finals.
“Yeah, you may have an ‘A,’ but that doesn’t mean anything when it’s time to take the test,” Dixon says.
The championships at Salisbury High also show that a smaller school with less than 1,000 students “can do big things like any high school in North Carolina,” Dixon says.
Spencer Dixon, a junior, said the soccer team also made a state title its goal at the beginning of the fall season.
“We all knew that nothing else was going to satisfy us,” he says.
On the road to the soccer finals, Salisbury High had to come from two goals down to Shelby and take a sudden-death victory from Cuthbertson.
In the championship, the Hornets gave up leads twice and were outshot 19 to 10, but they found a way to win.
“It just kind of shows if you’re working hard, keeping (on task), things will work,” Spencer Dixon says. “Perseverance, I guess. … It goes for classes, too.”
Salisbury High’s Joy Loeblein knows all about perseverance. As a freshman and junior, she reached the state 2A title match in tennis doubles, only to lose heart-breaking matches.
In 2011, she and lifelong friend Erika Nelson scored a 7-5, 6-2 victory over a doubles team from Cedar Ridge to win the state championship.
In the semifinals, they won a match against Shelby sisters Emily and Nancy Bridges that Salisbury Coach Chris Myers called a match for the ages.
“I think it’s a memory that will always last,” Loeblein says of the accomplishments as both an individual and team member.
“The final moment you win is something no one can take away from you.”
Loeblein, who will be going to Liberty University next fall, says the training, practices and sacrifices shared by each team member make for strong bonds — some that will last a long time.
“I look back on it with so much joy,” she says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com
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