High school basketball: Carson boys in a rebuilding mode
Sixth in a series on local basketball teams …
Coach: Brian Perry (15th season, 178-184)
2019-20: 11-14 overall, 4-6 3A North Piedmont Conference (5th)
Final MaxPreps ranking: 64th in 3A out of 109; No. 302 in N.C. out of 642
Key losses: EJ Clark, AJ Mauldin, Javon Smith
Key returners: Emory Smith, Hunter Burris
By Mike London
CHINA GROVE— Carson’s 2019-20 season was a weird one.
The Cougars boasted half of the county’s top six scorers, but something wasn’t quite clicking. They finished 11-14 and barely missed the 64-team 3A playoff bracket.
Carson actually scored more points than its opponents for the season and stood 10-7 in early January after beating eventual North Piedmont Conference champ Statesville.
But just when people started talking about the Cougars, they hit the wall. They had no luck except the bad variety the rest of the way. They lost a bunch of tight games down the stretch, mostly to strong teams.
Now the Cougars basically start over.
EJ Clark, Rowan County’s No. 2 scorer and arguably the county’s best player for the first half of the 2019-20 season, was a senior.
AJ Mauldin, fourth in the county in scoring, and Javon Smith, a dynamic playmaker who finished sixth in the county scoring parade, decided to move on, eager for a fresh start. Mauldin will be draining 3-pointers for West Rowan. Smith will be doing his dash-and-slash thing as the lead guard for the Salisbury Hornets.
Carson averaged 62.5 points per game last season. Clark, Mauldin and Smith accounted for almost 51 of them.
That doesn’t leave a lot of firepower behind.
Carson head coach Brian Perry has been around since the beginning for the Cougars and has guided them in 362 games. He has coached really bad teams, really good teams and just about everything in between. He hasn’t lost any sleep over losing two standouts.
“They’re good players and we’re glad they came here,” Perry said. “But they were never really ours. They just went back to where they were supposed to be before they came to play with us.”
If Carson is any good this year, Perry will be coach of the year. This looks like the tallest rebuilding project he’s ever undertaken.
The numbers in the program are dwindling. The jayvees won only twice all last season.
Injuries haven’t helped. Cameron Burleyson, who got some playing time last season, will miss this one with an injury.
“Let’s just say we didn’t have to cut anybody this year at Carson,” Perry said.
The “COVID wrench,” as Perry puts it, probably hurt Carson as much as it did anyone. Carson needed summer camps and a normal preseason to get used to playing with each other, to figure things out defensively, to find out who could do what, but there wasn’t much preparation time. The Cougars will be at a serious disadvantage against seasoned teams like East Rowan and West Rowan.
“We’ve got no starters back and maybe we’ve got 3 or 4 points per game back,” Perry said. “We have two kids with varsity experience.”
Emory Taylor and Hunter Burris are back. They came off the bench last season as the seventh and eighth men for the Cougars. Taylor had some productive games and scored 51 points, while Burris collected 23.
“Burris is strong and he’ll battle,” Perry said. “Emory has some ball-handling skills and he can get to the rim. He’s also a pretty good 3-point shooter.”
Seniors AJ Merriman and Brodie Johnson are making comebacks.
Merriman is a good athlete and a point guard, while Johnson will be counted on for 3-pointers.
“They haven’t played since they were jayvees, but we kind of begged them to come back out,” Perry said. “I’ve told both of them that whether we go 14-0 or 0-14, what’s going to matter most is the legacy they leave behind for their younger teammates.”
Tristen McBride is an interesting freshmen. He’s a thick 6-foot-2. Ordinarily, he’d be a project who could take him time developing on the jayvees, but Carson doesn’t have that luxury. He’ll learn on the varsity. He may take some lumps for a while, but Perry is confident he’ll be dishing out more than he takes eventually.
“We haven’t had a big, big body like him since MyQuon Stout,” Perry said. “We’ll need him to use that broad body to get us some rebounds. But it’s a big change from middle school to the intensity and the speed of varsity basketball.”
Perry likes Jay Howard, a long, lanky sophomore, mostly because of his active defense.
Mikey Beasley, a sophomore guard, will help. He hurt an ankle pretty badly in a four-wheeler accident, but he’s been able to come back.
Garrison Collins, an undersized post, will be expected to scrap for rebounds.
“He’s strong and he’s fiery,” Perry said.
Perry is optimistic that juniors Alejandro “Alex” Barrera and Matthew Hennie and sophomore Daniel Epley can give the Cougars some quality minutes.
“Our guys know the situation and they know it may not be pretty, at times,” Perry said. “But we can’t let three ugly minutes turn into eight bad ones. We’ve got to keep playing with positive energy no matter what. If we can do that, growth will take place.”
Carson is scheduled to open at home against South Rowan on Friday and to travel to Davie County on Saturday.
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