Girls Coach of the Year: East Rowan’s Danielle Porter
SALISBURY — Danielle Porter was, to be perfectly honest, the last player you would’ve expected to become a coach, much less an award-winning one.
Back in the late 1990s when Rowan County’s 2014 Coach of the Year was still Danielle Cross, she was a flashy guard for some deep East Rowan teams. She had some talent, especially as a ballhandler, and she was an exciting player. But she was a little too exciting because her no-look passes might be headed for an unsuspecting fan in the bleachers instead of the teammate who was her intended target.
Porter was the sort of player who could make a crowd cheer and give her coach a dozen gray hairs all at the same time.
Porter was prone to flashes of brilliance and stretches of, well, non-brilliance, and her playing time was never what she wanted it to be. As a junior in 1996-97, she averaged 3.4 points a game, making a modest contribution to a 19-7 team that placed second in a tough South Piedmont Conference.
As a senior in 1997-98, her contribution was more significant for a 19-9 team. She shot more, and double figures weren’t unusual because she was a good shooter.
She shared point-guard duties as a senior with a sophomore, who was calmer and quieter, a sophomore straight out of the pages of a “How to Play Point Guard” textbook.
That sophomore was Brooke Misenheimer, and no one ever doubted that she’d grow up to be a coach. Coach Gina Talbert juggled Porter and Misenheimer — fire and ice. When Porter was on, she’d let her fly around, and when she was off, Talbert could turn to Misenheimer to repair the damage.
When Porter was on, she was a tornado. She scored 17 points against Northwest Cabarrus in five minutes. She was quotable too, smart and funny. She made some pressure-filled free throws one night and told the Post all about how pressure turned coal into diamonds.
Her signature play — her parting gift — was a 2-on-1 fastbreak with her best friend Lauren Simpson. A simple bounce pass would’ve sufficed, but that would’ve been boring. Porter whipped the pass behind her back, Simpson finger-rolled it over the rim without breaking stride, the crowd went crazy, Porter grinned — and Misenheimer reported to the scorer’s table.
Porter obviously had fun playing and she was fun to watch play, but we all were startled when she was named as East’s varsity coach. As it turned out, East knew what it was doing. Porter has been able to communicate with her players amd motivate them, which isn’t a shock. The surprise has been that she’s also been able to teach fundamentals, especially defensive concepts, so well.
Since Porter took charge, East’s records have been 8-15, 8-16, 15-11 and now this season’s 22-4, which included both SPC championships. East hadn’t swept regular-season and tourney trophies since 1999.
Porter is the coach of the year in a tough year to be the coach of the year in Rowan. North coach Brian Lytton also won two championships. South’s Jarrod Smith led a turnaround from 6-18 to 18-10. Misenheimer’s Carson squad went an over-achieving 13-13, beating South and East, after losing the top two scorers in school history.
“I do feel good about this honor,” Porter said. “It’s a great group of coaches in the county.”
East’s season wasn’t non-stop glory. There were 10 straight wins at the start, but then the Mustangs took a beating from North in the Sam Moir Christmas Classic championship game. That was North with a healthy Brielle Blaire.
“North was so fast, and it was a very difficult matchup for us,” Porter said. “North was so good at full strength that I don’t know if anyone would’ve been able to beat them.”
That initial adversity shook the Mustangs. They also lost their first two games of the New Year to A.L. Brown and to a South Rowan team playing without Avery Locklear.
When you lose by 17 to a team that doesn’t have its best player, you have to do some soul-searching, but that’s when Porter earned her coach-of-the-year stripes.
“I told the team there were two ways we could go,” Porter said. “We could fall apart or we could band together and learn from those losses. The girls stuck together and they started playing better than I ever dreamed they could play.”
East reeled off 12 wins in a row, the longest streak for the program since 2004. Then East beat Carson for the the third time and South for the second time in the tournament.
“All the good teams go through a tough time at some point, and we did hit a lull,” Porter said. “That loss to South was the defining point for us. We could’ve gone backwards, but that loss drove us forward.”
East’s 2014 team will be remembered for the two towers — 6-foot-4 Karleigh Wike and 6-3 Kelli Fisher, who represent the Mustangs on the all-county team.
“They’re tall and that obviously helps,” Porter said. “But they are also quality, skilled athletes.”
The offseason work put in by Lauren Thomas, Jocelyn Lowe and Amani Ajayi made them more efficient. East also benefited from the defensive speed of sophomore blurs Shenell and Shenique Pharr.
Thomas was a miracle. When she tore a tendon in her foot in November the diagnosis was that she’d be out 16 weeks. She made it back in five.
Porter gave some credit for East’s special season to assistant coach Amanda Paffrath, who works with the post players, and also to her husband Derek.
“Derek played sports, so he understands how it is,” said Porter, who has a 1-year-old son. “You come home from a game, and you need that debriefing period. He’s been very supportive.”
Porter got two thumbs-up from her players.
“When we struggled, Coach got us back to the basics and we got closer as a team,” Wike said. “I came in the same year Coach did and we’ve watched the program grow. Each year, we’ve gone up a little more.”
Porter has come full circle, from competing in the SPC, to coaching in it. She’s still in love with basketball, although the behind-the-back pass has dropped a bit on her list of favorite things.
“There was a lot of nostalgia for me being back in the SPC after all these years,” she said. “It was fun and intense, and our rivalries with the Cabarrus teams will only grow in years to come.”
Danielle 4th year, first time
it was mitchell then mcneill then Misenheimer then Mcneely porter