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Prep Basketball: Coach K leads Cavaliers into postseason

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SPENCER —William Weaver Kesler Jr. acts 35 and looks 55, but he’s 65 years old now, and the last thing he thought he would be doing at this point in his life would be calling the shots for North Rowan’s boys basketball team.

Kesler answers to “Bill” or “Coach K,” and he’s been in charge for the Cavaliers’ last six games, since interim head coach Martin Unger stepped down on Jan. 26, citing family reasons. Kesler was elevated that day by AD Ben Hampton from assistant coach to new interim coach.

“This definitely is not where I expected to be, but we were in a situation where there wasn’t a lot of time to do anything else,” Kesler said. “I’ve been around a while and I know these kids, and so I was asked to do it. I found out at 11 a.m. on a Friday and we had a home game against North Moore that night. The next day we played Salisbury at Catawba.”

North Rowan is 0-3 against Salisbury this season, but it’s the three Salisbury games that speak loudest about the Cavaliers’ potential in the 1A state playoffs. North led the Hornets in the fourth quarter in two of them, but lost 67-63, 57-50 and  finally, 51-49, on a buzzer-beater. Salisbury is 22-2 and highly ranked sixth in 2A, so North Rowan, despite its modest 14-8 record, is a dangerous 1A club.

“One of the Salisbury games we lost, we shot 22-for-49 on free throws,” Kesler said. “And we lost to West Rowan because we were 6-for-25 on free throws. If we make a decent percentage of our free throws, we’re 19-3 or 20-2 right now. We’ve started shooting them better lately.”

Kesler and his wife, Linda Pendleton Kesler, are West Rowan High and Catawba graduates. They bleed green. Their boys, Weaver and Joseph, came through North a while back. They were brilliant scholars and above-average athletes, especially in baseball. Joseph is a lawyer in Salisbury. Weaver is a physician in Pennsylvania.

Kesler is ego-less and prefers life in the background. A Salisbury-Rowan Hall of Famer, he’s been an integral part of North athletics since 1976. In his first eight years at North, his only head coaching job was tennis, but in 1984, he became head baseball coach. He coached 295 wins and guided the Cavaliers to the 2A state championship series in 2000. Through it all, for more than 40 years, he’s contributed his know-how, common sense and humor to a lot of successful North teams as a baseball, football and basketball assistant.

“I’ve taken a few years off from football and a few from basketball, but lately I’ve been helping with all three,” Kesler said.

Now he’s a head basketball coach for the first time in his life.

“Well, except maybe for a couple of games when our head coach got thrown out,” Kesler said.

Kesler has been dealt a pretty good hand with these current Cavaliers, even though they don’t have the team they expected to have when the season began. Josh Ellis, who would have been the starting shooting guard, broke a foot in the third game of the season. His only appearance since then was a Senior Night cameo. He played 30 seconds, made a limping 3-pointer and sat back down to an ovation.

North suffered an even bigger loss to another broken foot in the Jan. 23 game at North Stanly. Chaz McCombs, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound center, went down for the season. Without McCombs to contain him, North Stanly big man Jason Doerr scored 18 points in the fourth quarter and North Stanly beat the Cavaliers, 65-55.

“With McCombs, we were just spanking everyone on the glass, and it really didn’t matter if they were 2A, 3A or 4A,” Kesler said. “Not having that big body now hurts our rebounding some, but we’re still a very good rebounding team. Mostly we miss his size on defense.”

North’s 6-4 forwards Dayjuwon Cooke and Brevin Goodlett are high-flyers who combine for 29 points per game. Their rebounding numbers are staggering.

“They’re really good athletes with good size,” Kesler said.

Derrick Page, the 6-2 point guard, has played at a high level, sacrificing his own scoring to distribute and lead. Dajuan Clement, a 6-3 senior, has seen his minutes swell since the injury to McCombs and has made the most of his chance. Quintous Smith, a 6-3 guard, has shot the ball well in streaks. Smaller guards David Broaddus and Xzaviar Davis jump off the bench to ramp up the defensive pressure.

Davis and fellow freshmen Kendrell Goodes and Nick Colson have played serious minutes. Kesler hinted that another promising freshman will be moving up from the jayvees for the postseason.

“We’ve got a strong junior class and a really exciting freshman class,” Kesler said.

The Cavaliers tied for second in the nine-team Yadkin Valley Conference with an 11-3 record. North Stanly swept North Rowan, went 13-1 and won the league.

“It’s a pretty darn tough 1A league that we’re in,” Kesler said. “North Stanly has (Bryson) Childress and Doerr, and they’ve won like 15 in a row. Albemarle is really tough, long and athletic. South Stanly has three exceptional players. Uwharrie Charter is very good. Their point guard might be as good as anyone we’ve faced this year, and they almost got us on Saturday.”

North’s game at Uwharrie Charter to close the regular season was meaningful because the Cavaliers did something they haven’t done. They rallied from a huge deficit, storming back after trailing by as much as 42-21 after a barrage of Uwharrie 3-pointers.

“We’ve had two types of games this year,” Kesler said. “We’ve run away from people or we’ve been in close games that we weren’t able to finish. This time we kept our composure, we fought back, we took it to them in the fourth quarter, and then we made our free throws to finish them off. Uwharrie didn’t keep their cool and  got three technicals, and Broaddus went 8-for-8 on free throws in the fourth quarter. It’s a game that could help us. Our guys really finished strong on the road and it was good for them to see that they can do that.”

North Rowan is at home tonight against seventh-seeded South Davidson in the first round of the YVC tournament at 6:30 p.m.

The Cavaliers should be able to take care of the Wildcats, but every game after that is going to be challenging. The semifinals and championship game of the YVC tourney are at Pfeiffer University and North Rowan likely will face Albemarle again in a semifinal. If the Cavaliers survive that one, North Stanly is almost certain to be waiting.

“We’ve got good kids that play hard, so we believe we can do something in the postseason,” Kesler said. “If we can make 60 percent of our free throws and make a few outside shots, we have a chance against anyone. Athleticism never goes out of style, and we’ve got that.”

Kesler still serves as a substitute teacher at North several times a week. He worked a half-day on Monday with special needs kids before conducting basketball practice after school.

“My wife still likes to spend money,” he joked. “So I still try to bring in a little.”

He has no desire to be the head coach next season. He’s looking forward to stepping back into the shadows and allowing someone younger to handle all the things a head coach must deal with.

But for now, Coach K is the guy calling the shots. The Cavaliers will go hard for him. Don’t be shocked if North plays for a while.

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