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High school football: Record-breaking West QB heads to N.C. Wesleyan

West Rowan's Stolsworth heading to N.C. Wesleyan

James Sipes file photo/for the Post …
West Rowan quarterback Payne Stolsworth, shown running for first-down yardage against Davie County last September.

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

MOUNT ULLA — West Rowan’s record-setting quarterback Payne Stolsworth is headed to the school that showed him the most attention and the most love — North Carolina Wesleyan College, a Division III school in Rocky Mount.

Stolsworth was recruited by a number of schools, but N.C. Wesleyan was the one that sent a hand-written note that said he was the guy they had picked to lead their football family. N.C. Wesleyan was the school where coaches pulled Stolsworth aside from the other recruits on his visit and told him he was the guy they really needed.

N.C. Wesleyan recruited Stolsworth (6-2, 200) consistently and persistently for months. Now he’s headed to Rocky Mount.

He should have the chance to play early. West head football coach Joe Nixon, West head boys basketball coach Mike Gurley, and West head baseball coach Seth Graham all have benefited from big performances by Stolsworth, one of the county’s top three-sport athletes. They believe Stolsworth could end up being “the guy” for the Battling Bishops, who compete in the USA South Conference with schools such as Averett, Greensboro, Methodist and Brevard.

“He led us,” Gurley said. “Now, I fully expect him to go lead a new bunch of guys in Rocky Mount.”

Stolsworth was impressed with N.C. Wesleyan’s facilities, which include a sweet, 5,000-seat stadium, an impressive field house and a state-of-the-art training facility.

“It wasn’t what I expected at all when I went up there to visit,” Stolsworth said. “I was very surprised by it. It wasn’t just some little D-III program. Everything was a lot bigger and better than I expected.”

For the majority of his life, Stolsworth was groomed to be a college baseball pitcher. He made some varsity 3-pointers for West basketball his freshman year, but he didn’t even play football.

Heading into his sophomore year, Stolsworth was coaxed into joining the football team. The plan was for him to provide depth at QB, to back up the team’s best athlete, Kortez Weeks, who was making a transition from receiver to taking snaps. But a disastrous 41-0 loss to Davie County in Week 2 sent West’s coaches back to the drawing board during the open week that followed. When West returned to action against Robinson, Stolsworth was throwing and Weeks was catching. Stolsworth threw for 196 yards that night, including two TDs to Weeks. That was the start. Stolsworth quarterbacked the Falcons the rest of his career.

And what a career it was.

“He had really good receivers to throw to (led by Weeks, and then Jalen Houston), but give Payne credit – he put up phenomenal numbers for a guy who took over in the third game of his sophomore year,” Nixon said. “Quarterback is the toughest position. There’s only one, and so every eye is always on you. You get praised hard, but you also get criticized hard. It wasn’t easy for him, but he made tremendous progress. He became not just an accurate passer, but a great leader for our football team.”

Stolsworth turned in three almost identical seasons for the Falcons as a passer. In terms of passing yards, he had seasons that rank 13th, 14th and 17th on Rowan County’s all-time list. He threw for 6,085 yards in his career, second in school history and fourth in county history. He threw 68 touchdown passes, second in county history and the most ever by a Falcon. He had a 358-yard passing game as a junior to break the single-game record at a school that has almost always relied on running the football.

“Looking back on it, the yards, the records, aren’t what means the most to me,” Stolsworth said. “Just getting the chance to be West Rowan’s quarterback as a sophomore was what I’ll remember. It was eye-opening to be the starting quarterback. That’s when I started thinking I might have a future in football.”

While his passing yardage numbers didn’t deviate much over the years — 2,034 in 2016, 2,101 in 2017 and 1,950 in 2018 — Stolsworth’s mobility did improve.

“I made a decision that I needed to drop a few pounds and get faster and quicker,” Stolsworth said. “I worked out with (West legend and trainer) K.P. Parks and I started going to Planet Fitness every day. I still work out every day, and it’s paid off.”

Stolsworth changed his body quite a bit. He was noticeably more agile and versatile during the recent basketball season in which he scored 415 points and led the Falcons with 17.3 points per game.

Graham plans to use him in left field as well as on the mound this baseball season, another testament to his improving speed.

As far as the mental and emotional aspects of playing quarterback, Stolsworth has a solid demeanor for the position. He doesn’t rattle easily. If he does make a poor throw, he can move right on to the next play.

“He never gets too excited, never gets down,” Nixon said. “He’s an even-keel guy who can go with the flow.”

That’s true, but at the party thrown recently in his honor in West’s media center, he did look a little excited about his chance to become a starting quarterback at the next level.

“He’ll be good,” Nixon said. “He’s that guy who can stand in the pocket under pressure and deliver the football.”

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