High school basketball: Peak night for Valley

Published 12:01 am Sunday, February 5, 2023

By Mike London

CHINA GROVE — On Jan. 18, 2008, senior Kenan McKenzie, son of East Rowan head coach Greg McKenzie, needed 12 points for 1,000.

He got 13, as the Mustangs wiped out rival Carson, 80-57. Carson was pretty good — the Cougars had the program’s all-time scoring leader Darius Moose, among others — but those were glory days for East basketball.

The Mustangs, in 2008, were capping a four-year run of 24-6, 18-9, 23-5 and 23-5. That’s 88-25.

East’s 2004-05 team, the first team McKenzie coached and the one season in which East had both Vanderford brothers, Alstin and Justin, the top two scorers in East history, the Mustangs played in the 3A West Regional final.

In 2006 and 2007, East competed in 4A and won the Central Piedmont Conference Tournament in 2006. The Mustangs lost to R.J. Reynolds in the CPC tourney championship game in 2007, a scrap that people still talk about. Those East teams lost in the 4A playoffs to taller teams from Hopewell and Vance, but East fans will always believe that if they had still been in 3A, they could have gone the distance.

Returning to 3A for the 2007-08 season, the Mustangs were still mighty good with the younger Vanderford, McKenzie, Shawn Eagle and Daniel Plummer pouring in points, and they added big man Kevin Hubbard in January. But they lost to Concord in Rimer Gym in the second round of the 3A playoffs.

That loss at Concord is where the high times ended for East boys basketball. East hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008.

The best East season since 2008 was turned in by the 2011-12 team that managed 13-12 and lost in the first round of the playoffs.

East boys basketball fans, some of the county’s most loyal and vocal, have waited patiently for something to cheer about. Tee Harris and Dylan Valley have provided some opportunities to cheer during the last two seasons.

Valley, a senior guard, scored his 1,000th career point on Friday at Carson. He is the first to score 1,000 for the program since McKenzie did it on that night against Carson 15 years ago. He did it in the fourth quarter of a game in which East was taking an awful  pounding from Carson, but the bottom line is he did it. He needed 23 for 1,000 and he scored 24 of his team’s 38. That’s 63 percent of his team’s output. He went 8-for-8 at the foul line.

He was worthy of celebration even in defeat.

“You’re always going to get Dylan’s best effort,” East coach Andrew Porter said. “He’s that gym-rat guy. He puts in all the work and then he goes out there and shows everyone how good a player he is.”

Valley is the second 1,000-point scorer Porter has coached. When he coached the Lexington girls, he had a standout player named Mikenzie Yim-Harvin.

“What Dylan and Mikenzie have in common was extremely high basketball IQs and basketball instincts,” Porter said. “Both of them excelled in the classroom and both of them excelled on the floor. They both could flat-out score.”

Getting a chance to play varsity basketball as a freshman was key for Valley on his long and winding road to 1,000. He scored two points in his varsity debut, but he had a 25-point night against North Iredell before that season ended. He averaged 7.2 points and put 181 points in the record book.

Those points would prove important on his journey as COVID dramatically shortened his sophomore season. He only played 13 games, averaged 9.6 per game and totaled 125 points.

There was a huge jump for Valley as a junior. Opponents were chasing him off the 3-point line, so he worked to make himself an effective driver. He became a more creative offensive player, able to finish with a pull-up or an acrobatic layup. He got to the foul line more and he’s a terrific foul shooter. He missed a game after getting poked in the eye, but he came right back to score 20-plus in his next three games. He totaled 333 points for the season, averaging 15.9 per game.

As a senior, the progression has continued, despite playing in a league with a lot of good teams that give him a lot of defensive attention. He’s scored in double figures every game and he’s scored 20-plus seven times, including a career-best 28 against Central Davidson, the same program he scored his first two points against as a freshman. He’s averaging 18.1 points and has been one of the county’s most consistent players.

It’s been a tough grind for East throughout Valley’s career. East was 2-23 when he was a freshman. Porter has coached him the last three years. East went 5-8 on the court his sophomore year, but had to forfeit two of those wins. East was 7-15 his junior season and is 5-15 this season after the loss to Carson.

But through all those setbacks and disappointing losses, Valley has never wavered.

He never stopped plugging away at that 1,000-point goal he set for himself as a freshman.

Now he has it, and no one can ever take that away from him. He is only the seventh 1,000-point scorer in program history. Besides the Vanderford brothers and McKenzie, that short list includes three athletes from the 1990s — Travis Goins (1996) and  Thad Sprinkle and Brian Perry, teammates who reached the milestone in 1991.

Perry, of course, is the coach of the Carson Cougars. He was happy to join the cheers for Valley on Friday. They halted the game to salute Valley at Carson, which was sort of like Tar Heels clapping in Chapel Hill for a Duke Blue Devil.

Porter could have taken him out with 999 and gotten that 1,000th point at home on Senior Night, but the safe thing was to get it in the books. Tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone, and you never know. Valley could have sprained an ankle at Monday’s practice.

“I was proud to see him get his 1,000,” Porter said. “I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to coach him for three years and to watch him grow.”

This season will be it for Valley as far as serious basketball. He can shoot and he’s crafty with the ball, but he’s modestly-sized at 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds.

He’s a stellar student who has been accepted at his dream school, UNC.

In, the big picture of life, Valley sees a UNC diploma as a superior option to clinging to basketball for a few more years with a Division III program. It’s hard to argue against that line of thinking.

Valley also could be a factor for East baseball this spring. He’s been waiting for his turn to get on the mound for the Mustangs. That opportunity should finally be there.