High school basketball: New coach, but West boys expect to keep winning

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Eleventh in a series of reports on local basketball teams …

By Mike London

MOUNT ULLA — When a new basketball coach is hired, the principal and AD hope to not have to worry about the position for the next 10 years — if everything goes right.

When West Rowan went looking for a new boys coach in 1997, Mike Gurley got the call and made the move to Mount Ulla from Lexington. Everything went right, and then some. He lasted 25 seasons with the men in light blue, many of them glorious, many of them banner-hanging, two of them undefeated.

He mellowed during his time on the West bench, growing from despondent after the occasional defeats to philosophical about seasons like the break-even one the Falcons experienced in 2021-22.

Gurley contemplated retirement several times — and even announced it once — but this time it will stick. He’s enjoying his family, going on fishing trips, making it to concerts, trying new restaurants. He’s found there is life after basketball.

Gurley is one of a handful of coaches who was inducted into the Salisbury-Rowan Hall of Fame while he was still active. Just about everyone would put him on the Mount Rushmore of Rowan County high school basketball coaches and some would put him on the Rowan Rushmore for all high school coaches in all sports. His record-setting legacy is secure — 450-224 at West Rowan, 552-263 when you include his successful tenure at Lexington.

Now the torch is passed to the man Gurley wanted it to be passed to — Dadrian Cuthbertson. West didn’t have to conduct a nationwide search. Cuthbertson has been on West’s bench the previous three seasons as an assistant coach.

He knows the personnel, knows the program.

Now it’s his ship to steer.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity,” Cuthbertson said. “I still talk to Gurley about every day. I just want to keep it going. I came out of West Rowan so I know how important basketball is to the West Rowan community.”

Cuthbertson wore the blue in the early 1990s for three teams coached by Charles Hellard. Cuthbertson was a very good player. He averaged 16.7 points in 1993-94 for a powerful, Joel Fleming-directed team that won 27 straight games before losing to West Caldwell by two points in the regional.

Cuthbertson is a barber, not a schoolteacher. He is the owner of  Pure Vision Barber Studio in Salisbury.

He has years of coaching experience in the AAU ranks in addition to his time as West jayvee coach and varsity assistant. He has a lifetime relationship with many Rowan hoopers. He was a popular choice among players and fans to follow Gurley.

The team Cuthbertson will guide isn’t the one West fans expected to be seeing a few months ago. The big trees West groomed for two seasons are prematurely gone. Bryson Cowan and Levon Jacobs transferred to Moravian Prep in Hudson. The twin towers were works in progress, combining for a modest 15 points per game, but 6-foot-8 guys don’t grow on trees. It’s hard to lose two at once, especially with their most productive days still in front of them.

“It hurts us a little bit,” Cuthbertson said. “We went from being really tall to kind of short. It definitely means a change in our style of play. We’ll need to get up and down more now. We’ll play faster.”

Peter Williams-Simpson, an athlete who did some occasional damage for the Falcons, transferred to North Davidson prior to the school year.

West won’t have Evan Kennedy, who turned in a handful of productive games as a varsity freshman. Kennedy suffered a growth plate injury during the football season.

Matthew Connolly, who was helpful to the basketball squad last season, elected to focus on his next-level sport — baseball — and West lost Josh Noble and Noah Loeblein through the standard road of graduation.

That’s a whole lot of subtractions from the ultimate 50/50 team. West had 11-11 record last season, averaging 54 points per game while also allowing 54 per game.

But it’s still West Rowan, so it’s not like the cupboard is bare. West has William Givens and Athan Gill, and they have the ability to be two of the county’s top players.

Givens has added some muscle and inches and shoots the ball as well as anyone in the county. He averaged a team-best 13.6 points as a sophomore. He made some clutch ones, some game-deciders and topped 20 points five times.

“He makes big shots, and he’s putting it on the floor more, adding to his game,” Cuthbertson said.

The 6-foot-3 Gill returned to West Rowan last season, the scene of his dominant middle school performances, after spending time at other high schools. He played in 15 of the Falcons’ 22 games and took over at times. He scored a team-high 23 when West lost to East Lincoln in the state playoffs.

“He’s talented and he’s competitive,” Cuthbertson said. “He’s tough, physical, very strong. He can guard just about anyone.”

It’s reasonable for West fans to expect some steps forward from returning point guard Kayvone Norman and from Elijah Holmes, who played a lot last season.

“One thing you’ll notice with a lot of our guys is they are taller and stronger than they were last season,” Cuthbertson said. “Their bodies have matured.”

Holmes is a streaky shooter and had a couple of double-digit games last season. He scored 15 in West’s 2022-23 opener.

Norman, a football running back who is starting to get his basketball legs back, probably won’t score big, but the Falcons will count on him as a ball-handler and defender.

“He’s a very strong kid and a good distributor,” Cuthbertson said.

Adrian Stockton will help a lot. He proved during football season that he’s one of the county’s most explosive and fastest athletes. Those attributes usually transfer well to the basketball court.

“He’s got energy for days,” Cuthbertson said.

Cuthbertson has high hopes for youngsters Brant Graham, a 6-foot-3 freshman, and Romir Hairston, a 6-foot-3 sophomore.

How ready those two are for the speed and physicality of varsity action will be one of the keys for the Falcons.

Football coach Louis Kraft has said frequently this year that Graham will be the next big thing for West football, where he’s expected to be a three-year starter at quarterback.

But like his older brothers Bailey and Braden, he can hoop. He’s a shooter with good size.

Hairston also brings strong family bloodlines, length and scoring ability to the mix.

Depth will come from junior guards Tyrin Little, Deiondre Martin and Tyler Walker.

“Little can rebound for his size (5-foot-10),” Cuthbertson said. “He and Martin are tough on the defensive end. Walker is a scrappy kid and he can shoot.”

Cuthbertson’s first game at the helm was exciting — a 62-60 loss to North Iredell that went down to the wire.

Despite being 0-1 it was an encouraging game for the Falcons. Givens drilled shots and the Falcons hung in the game with a very good team despite an extreme size disadvantage.

“Our guys have been putting in the work, buying in,” Cuthbertson said. “We expect to have a good season.”

West has a tough schedule.

The next four games will be on the road, with three against 4As Mooresville and Davie County, plus a rematch at North Iredell.



Coach: Dadrian Cuthbetson (1st year)

2021-22: 11-11 overall, 8-6 3A South Piedmont Conference (tied for 3rd)

Playoffs: Lost to East Lincoln in the first round

League: 3A SPC (East Rowan, South Rowan, Carson, Concord, Central Cabarrus, NW Cabarrus, Lake Norman Charter)

Key returners: William Givens, Athan Gill, Kayvone Norman, Elijah Holmes