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HS basketball: Perry siblings return from ACL injuries to spark Carson

With hard work and courage, Perry siblings return

Wayne Hinshaw file photo/for the Salisbury Post …
Carson’s Carleigh Perry (14) drives to the basket against Robinson on Nov. 19.

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

CHINA GROVE — It’s the girls championship game of the Dale’s Sporting Goods Sam Moir Christmas Classic at Catawba’s Goodman Gym.

Undefeated Carson vs. undefeated Salisbury.

Carson sophomore Carleigh Perry rips down a Salisbury miss. Head up all the way, she takes off down the floor. No one stops the ball, so Perry finishes herself, drives the ball to the rim with as much authority as a 5-foot-9 girl can muster. She doesn’t celebrate. She sprints back on defense.

Less than a minute later, Perry repeats her end-to-end adventure, and there’s no longer any doubt that the Hornets will lose for the first time. Carson will win its second straight Christmas tournament.

While Anderson-bound senior wing McKenzie Gadson, tournament MVP, is Carson’s best player, the addition of Perry’s inside ferocity is really important.  The Cougars (16-0) have a chance for another tremendous season. They enter tonight’s game at Statesville ranked second in 3A.

Two years ago, Perry was dominating the Rowan County Middle School Tournament championship game for Erwin, outscoring Southeast by herself.

One year ago, she was sidelined with a torn right ACL.

“Her addition has brought us a lot of toughness and grit,” Carson coach Brooke Stouder said. “But it’s toughness that comes with a strong skill set. She’s a skilled basketball player who plays incredibly hard. She can defend, she can rebound, she can pass, and she can score. She and McKenzie play great together.”

•••

It’s Dec. 18. The Carson boys are at home against Central Cabarrus, the second night of non-conference back-to-backs.

Carson senior Cole Perry drills a 3-pointer. And then another one. Then he steals the ball and glides into traffic for a layup.

The 6-foot-4 Perry tore his left ACL last June and had surgery on July 2.

No one except Perry dreamed he’d even be back on the floor in mid-December, but in those back-to-backs, he totals 45 points. Carson loses a close one to Concord, but beats Central.

Perry is back and a program that lost every starter — except Perry—  to graduation, starts to believe it can have a winning season.

The Cougars enter tonight’s North Piedmont Conference game at Statesville with a 7-8 record, but 2-0 in the North Piedmont Conference.

•••

Carleigh and Cole Perry are siblings. Both have made inspiring comebacks from ACL injuries.

Both were injured in the summer months, a year apart. Cole was hurt in a situation with serious contact, but Carleigh’s injury was of the non-contact variety. ACL tears randomly happen.

Both teens were playing for their uncle Brian Perry when they were hurt. Carleigh was injured in 2017 as part of Brian’s travel-ball team. Cole went down during a Carson camp trip to Black Mountain in 2018.

Brian, who starred at East Rowan High and played college ball at Catawba, has been the head coach of Carson’s boys program since the school opened in 2006.

Brian’s daughter, Colbie, a sophomore who is Carleigh and Cole’s first cousin, is a shooter. She’s made 51 3-pointers this season and averages 12.5 points.

Carleigh and Colbie are the same height, but they bring different things to the table. Colbie has put up 149 3-pointers. Carleigh hasn’t attempted one yet, and isn’t likely to. Her game is in the paint.

•••

In the summer of 2017, just out of the eighth grade, Carleigh was holding her own with the Carson girls at camps. Carson had an excellent team returning, with a lot of seniors, but Stouder knew Carleigh would play a major role as a freshman.

“Colbie and I, we talked about it all the time,” Carleigh said. “We couldn’t wait to play on the varsity as freshmen. We couldn’t wait to play in the Christmas tournament. I love basketball, and everything was just going great for me. But then I got hurt. I planted my leg, and it just gave out. I’d never had an injury before, so I didn’t know it was an ACL. I just knew it was something different.”

When an MRI revealed the ACL tear, plus a lot of meniscus damage, the news was devastating for the young athlete, who also excels in tennis.

“Everything was gone overnight,” she said. “It was bad.”

It was a long rehab for Carleigh. Everyone was cautious.

“She’d had her dream snatched away from her, but we made her a sort of assistant coach, had her keeping stats and charts on the bench,” Stouder said. “She watched the games, and I know it was really hard for her, but she learned by watching.”

Carleigh almost missed all of her freshman season. She made it onto the floor for Carson’s first-round playoff win against Mount Tabor. She scored two points. The bleachers erupted.

“The doctors tell you that you’re released and it’s a great feeling, but mentally I wasn’t ready to play yet,” Carleigh said. “An ACL is a tough injury. Not just physically, but mentally.”

Carleigh has come back wide open as a sophomore. Her averages aren’t staggering — 9.2 points and 4.1 rebounds — but Carson has blown out a lot of teams and plays a lot of people. Carleigh also has sat some because of foul trouble. Fouls happen when you’re willing to fight for every rebound.

“Right now her game is still mostly rebounding and defense, but she’ll  become much more of a scoring threat in the future,” Stouder said. “She’s a sweet girl, fun to be around,and we couldn’t be more pleased with her. She’s working hard at playing more under control. She doesn’t want to get in foul trouble. She hates to come off the floor.”

Carleigh is shooting 55 percent from the field, so bigger things are ahead of her. Like all the Cougars, she plays with unselfishness, with a pass-first mentality. She’s played forever with her cousin and with fellow sophomores Ellie Wilhelm and Lani Isley, and it shows.

“I’m happy with how our season has gone,” Carleigh said. “I’m a better player, a more confident player now than I was before I got hurt. Everything is working out.”

•••

If there was silver lining with Carleigh’s injury, it was that the was able to help Cole come back from his. She’d already been through the process. The family had been through it.

“I was able to talk through stuff with Cole, and I feel like it made us closer,” Carleigh said. “People see you on the court, but they don’t realize all the time and effort it takes to get back out there. It’s hard. I know what Cole went through to get back out there so quickly for his senior season. He put in so much work. He pushed himself, and I’m proud of him.”

While the success rate for ACL surgery is 95 percent, there are different levels of recovery. Getting back the full range of motion and stability usually takes at least nine months. The knee supports everything from the lower leg to the thigh, and without a healthy ACL, the knee isn’t of much use for an athlete.

“It’s just such a major injury, a long injury,” Stouder said. “It’s an emotional injury.”

•••

Cole’s story started at Carson when he was a freshman on the varsity team. He didn’t play a lot that year. Mostly, he learned from Brenden Westbrook and the guys in the class right ahead of him — Jamarius Hairston, Owen White, Jailen Williams, Cameron Prugh — core players for three Carson teams, including last season’s 26-3 squad that wasn’t stopped until it ran into Cox Mill and Wendell Moore Jr.  in the fourth round of the 3A playoffs.

“I thought I’d play more than I did as a freshman, but the first two games of that season were the worst two games of my life,” Cole said. “I still got better practicing against older guys. Ryan Bearden (the county’s defensive player of the year in football) was on that team, and I got tougher practicing with a physical guy like that.”

As a sophomore sixth man, Cole averaged 7.4 points per game and had 18, a new career high in a playoff loss to South Point. As a junior starter, Cole scored more than 300 points, averaging 10.4.

With all the other starters graduating, everyone knew Cole’s huge season would come as a senior.

Still growing, he was outstanding last spring in AAU play for the Carolina Wolves.

“I found a great fit with the Wolves and was doing really well,” Cole said. “There was a lot of interest from D-II schools. I was on pace for a lot of offers.”

His injury occurred at Carson’s summer team camp in June. The Carson team was staying in the Black Mountain area and playing against teams such as C.D. Owen and Asheville Erwin.

Cole went up for a rebound in traffic and landed awkwardly.

“I heard a pop and I knew I did something,” Cole said. “At first, you hope maybe something just got out of place temporarily.”

Brian knew it was potentially serious, but he didn’t want to even think about another ACL injury in the family. But Cole couldn’t move around.

“I called my brother, Brad, Cole’s dad, and told him that he probably needed to drive up and get Cole,” Brian said. “Brad was up there that night.”

For a little while, all the Perrys held out hope it wasn’t another ACL.

“There was a little swelling, and I started researching knee injuries on the Internet,” Cole said. “I got worried and told my dad I  needed to see a doctor. He was way ahead of me. He’d already scheduled an MRI.”

It was an ACL tear,  not quite as severe as Carleigh’s had been. Carleigh had also suffered a lot of meniscus damage. Cole’s injury involved “only a little bit of meniscus.”

“When you find out you’ve got an ACL, you start doing  the math,” Cole said. “How many days until the season starts? How many days of rehab? My senior season was coming up, and it looked like the best case for me getting back was going to be January. But I made up my mind to beat the best case. My goal was the Christmas tournament. I wanted to play a few minutes in my last Christmas tournament.”

For Coach Brian Perry, it was a traumatic time. Not only was his only returning starter and best player sidelined, it was his nephew.

“Carleigh and Cole, both of them got hurt when I was coaching them, and that’s tough,” he said. “They’re players, but they’re also family, and you want to protect them. My first thought with Cole’s ACL was that he might lose his senior season. There aren’t any redshirts in high school, and it was terrible to think he might lose his last year and his chance to play in college.”

Cole’s comeback process started almost immediately.

“It wasn’t long after the surgery on July 2, that he was shooting from a chair,” Brian said. “But I was careful not to over-do it with Cole, not to try to make things happen too fast. Even when things were progressing well for him, I was targeting the first NPC game, Jan. 8, at home against North Iredell. If we could get him back for conference play, that would be great.”

Cole’s comeback accelerated more quickly than anyone anticipated.

“Joel Burgess at Extreme Performance really did a great job of pushing me,” Cole said. “It also helped that we’d seen everything that Carleigh had been though to get back.  But I was beating the schedule. My schedule for returning moved up a week — and then another week.”

With Carleigh, it had been a case of getting her knee healthy enough to get released by doctors, and then working toward playing basketball. Cole was basketball-ready the day he was released.

On Dec. 5, five months and three days after surgery, Cole made his surprise season debut in a home game against South Rowan.

“He felt OK, and the doctors said he was ready,” Brian said. “We weren’t going to play him much.”

He played about a quarter against South and scored 13 points.

Gradually, his court time increased.

“The real test was going to be how his knee felt after the back-to-backs (Dec. 17-18) against Concord and Central Cabarrus,” Brian said. “I was nervous as I’ve ever been, but he was OK. The sprints, the cuts, he handled everything. He made a lot of shots.”

Cole jokes that people can hear him coming from a mile away because there are still moving parts in his knee, but it appears he’s back to stay.

Playing for the third straight day, he turned in a 26-point outburst against East Rowan in the Christmas tournament, getting his career high on the same day that his sister helped Carson win a championship.

Since then, Cole has scored 25 and 20 in Carson’s two NPC victories..

“He’s a 6-4 guy who can really shoot,” Brian said. “But he’s more than that. He makes everyone on his team better. He’s got a lot of point guard tendencies. He sees the floor well.”

Cole is averaging 16.3 points and 6.1 rebounds and is getting help from players no one had heard of a year ago, young guys such as EJ Clark,  Javon Smith and AJ Mauldin.

“I’m not jumping like I did before I got hurt, but I’m hoping that will come around,” Cole said. “Other than that, I’m feeling pretty normal.”

The college coaches are coming around again.

Cole will have a chance to play D-II or D-III next season. The main thing is he’ll be able to turn his basketball ability into a college education.

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