High school basketball: Salisbury’s Withers blended talent into 22 wins

Published 12:02 am Sunday, March 26, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Salisbury’s Bryan Withers is the Post’s Rowan County Coach of the Year for boys basketball.

He led the Hornets to a 22-6 record, continuing a trend of terrific seasons. Withers has been coach of the year or co-coach of the year two years in a row and has been honored four times in the last six.

But try to tell Withers that he had a great season and he shakes his head.

“Very good, but not great,” he said. “I say that because I believed we had a legitimate chance to win 2A, and we weren’t able to get that done. Very proud of the guys for their effort, but there’s also some disappointment that we didn’t do more.”

The Hornets did a lot. After losing their Central Carolina Conference opener at Thomasville, they won 11 straight in the league, including a revenge home win against Thomasville, to share the regular-season championship.

Then Salisbury beat Thomasville in a rubber match at neutral Lexington to win the CCC tourney.

Teams are remembered mostly for what they do in the postseason, and the Hornets won three playoff games, including a 76-71 road victory against West Caldwell.

Great win for the program. That was the only home game West Caldwell lost all season.

Withers doesn’t talk much about what he did back in the day. People look at him and see his height, and they know he played, but a lot of them don’t know how well he played.

How special an athlete was Withers at Salisbury High back in the late 1980s?

Well, he didn’t play football for the Hornets, but he was a talent. He went to a summer camp and showed so much size and speed that he immediately attracted Division I offers as a wide receiver.

Basketball was his game. He scored 1,210 points for coach Sam Gealy’s Hornets in three seasons, averaging 12.2, 13.9 and 14.4 points as one of the leaders for a deep squad that had one of the best collections of talent in county history.

That 13.9 points per game season was his junior year, and the Hornets were so balanced and so good that he was Rowan County Player of the Year despite that relatively modest scoring average. The Hornets were 30-2 and state champs his junior year. They were 30-2 again his senior year, but lost to Lexington in the regional final.

Officially listed at 6-foot-5 by UNC Wilmington, Withers played in 108 college games for the Seahawks. His best season was in 1990-91 when he was a junior. He shot 57 percent from the field and averaged 9.7 points and 4.5 rebounds.

His first head coaching opportunity came many years later at South Rowan, where it’s generally been tough to win in boys basketball.

Withers’ overall career record now for 11 seasons is 171-97. That’s a .638 winning percentage. But in eight seasons at Salisbury, it’s 144-52, a .735 winning percentage.

He was 27-45 in three seasons at South. And while his days with the Raiders  diminish his lifetime winning percentage some, he is proud of the days when he led underdog South teams. There are great memories, such as leading the 8 seed to a win over the 1 seed in the Sam Moir Christmas Classic.

“No regrets at all,” Withers said. “I didn’t have as many players at South as I’ve had at Salisbury, but those kids played hard and gave me everything they had. I enjoyed that experience very much, and those days at South, that’s where I learned to coach.”

He’s been getting it done in a big way since he had a chance to return home to Salisbury — 18-5, 15-8, 27-4 (regional finalist), 17-10, 17-9, 8-5 (COVID), 20-5, and now 22-6.

This season’s team provided unusual opportunities and unique challenges. The Hornets had a national level recruit in junior Juke Harris, so he was the obvious centerpiece, but Withers had to mold a team around Harris’ wide range of skills. Guys had to accept roles, and Harris had to trust those guys to deliver when he attracted multiple defenders.

For the most part, things worked out admirably.

Harris had jaw-dropping 43-point and 45-point explosions, but the Hornets also were able to win the CCC tournament championship game on a night when Harris scored his season low of 15.

“Sometimes the talent is there, but the chemistry is not,” Withers said. “I thought the chemistry was better this year than last year. We were able to blend our talent better, and there were nights when everyone was highly involved on offense and defense. On those nights, we were hard to beat.”

On opening night, there was a thrilling 72-71 win against a loaded Piedmont Classical team. When the Hornets won that one, Withers knew they would be very good.

The December schedule — Smith, Olympic, Chambers, Northside Christian — was brutal, but the Hornets survived it and steadily got better.

There was a 41-point first quarter against Lexington in January that had to be seen to be believed. There was an unbelievably hot start in a 93-46 romp against rival North Rowan.

“Juke pretty much stays in the gym all the time, but most of our guys are football guys and we’re usually getting them after a long football run,” Withers said. “It takes time for them to build that chemistry and to get their basketball legs, but we definitely were a better team after Christmas. My teams — including the South teams — have gotten better as the season goes on.”

“Football guys” Mike Geter, Deuce Walker, Dashawn Brown, Hank Webb and Jalen Chunn turned in very solid basketball seasons. The Hornets also got a lift from youngsters such as sweet-shooting freshman Jonathan Ross. He was a difference-maker in several games.

“We’ve got a pretty amazing jayvee program right now,” Withers said. “I think we’ve lost two in two years.”

High school rosters are never sure things from season to season, but the Hornets were young, junior-heavy, and if everyone returns, they’ll be a handful next season.

“These guys won 22 games, but none of them were satisfied with that,” Withers said. “2A is very strong right now, but if they stay together, I’d put us up against anyone next season.”