High school girls basketball: Champions Poole, Brice are coaches of the year

Published 12:01 am Tuesday, March 28, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Rowan County Girls Basketball Coach of the Year is a split decision for the first time ever.

There’s a perfectly good reason for that. There never has been a hoops season in which two Rowan programs won state championships. You can’t do more than win the state championship, and West Rowan’s Ashley Poole and  Salisbury’s Lakai Brice guided their teams to state titles.

Poole got to savor West’s first 3A state title for about 10 minutes before she heard a question about next season from a reporter.

“Press conference after we win state and one of the first questions is how many seniors do you have?” Poole said with a laugh. “Well, we only had three, so you never know. We’ll have a lot of good players back. Maybe we can do it again. We do know what it takes now.”

For Brice, the latest triumph for the Hornets meant back-to-back 2A state titles, the first time that’s happened since Salisbury’s 2009-11 three-peat. There were waves of emotion for her because she not only was coaching a special senior class, she was coaching her daughter (Kyla Bryant), who has been the scorer, ball-handler and distributor for four seasons.

“Another championship feels very good and I am so proud of everyone involved in it,” Brice said. “But it was exhausting. It was very tough. We didn’t have the depth we had last season. We had to ask some girls to play 32 minutes. There were practices where all we could do was ice and stretches.”

Brice, who was one of the all-time players at Catawba, and Poole, who played on outstanding Salisbury teams in the 1990s, are contemporaries, Both were in their 10th season as head coaches. Both have records among the best all-time in the county for their sport.

After a 27-3 season, Brice is 189-70, fourth all-time in wins for Rowan girls basketball. After a historic 31-0 season, Poole is 175-80, sixth on the all-time wins list.

They’ll have the banners on the wall and the massive photos in the gym for all-time, and no one will ever be able to take that away from them.

Their teams did not meet, which is unusual for rivals located in such close proximity.

But that may be for the best. Members of both teams can live out the rest of their lives confident that they would have prevailed in that game had it been played, and their fans can have fun debating it for the next 20 years.

It was a grind for the Hornets, who had graduated four key players from the 2022 champs. Three reserves moved into the starting lineup. Their scoring dropped 8 points per game from the 2022 squad and they allowed 6 more points per game. But they still won by an average of 22 points.

They lost three times. To Panther Creek, the 4A state champs. To Carroll County, which blew away the competition in Virginia for a 3A state title. To a 27-3 North Pitt team.

“Two of our losses were in the John Wall Invitational in December, where we played three great teams and we beat one great team,” Brice said. “I really believe the competition we faced in that tournament made the difference in our successful season. We saw where we needed to be. We weren’t going to play anyone better than Panther Creek.”

With a boost from the teams it saw in the John Wall tournament, Salisbury’s competition level during the regular season was better than it got credit for. Salisbury’s opponents had a winning percentage of 55 percent.

In the state playoffs, the Hornets, who were third-seeded, had to beat the No. 2, No. 7, No. 9 and No. 12 teams in the 2A West RPI rankings to get to the finals. In the championship game, the Hornets beat Seaforth, the No. 6 seed from the East.

The Hornets survived severe foul issues to beat No. 9 T.W. Andrews and had to go on the road and win at old adversary Shelby, the No. 2 seed.

“One more battle with Ally Hollifield and the Lions,” Brice said, shaking her head. “But we got through it.”

The most memorable thing about the title game with Seaforth is that the Hornets trailed 13-0 at the outset. But they didn’t panic, and once they caught up, they took charge. They did not shoot well at all in the state title game, with the exception of Icesis Nwafor, who nailed three 3-pointers. But they never stopped defending. They held Seaforth under 30-percent shooting, and that was enough to win.

“Amazing senior class that we have,” Brice said. “Girls that understood their roles and carried them out to the very fullest. Kyla and Mary (Morgan) made the Final Four as babies. Sophomore year, they were one shot away from beating Shelby, and Shelby goes on to win the state championship. People will remember that we won state twice, but they weren’t far from winning four.”

Like the Hornets, West heard plenty of grief about its schedule, although three of the Falcons’ foes in the South Piedmont Conference — Central Cabarrus, Northwest Cabarrus and Lake Norman Charter — won quite a few more games than they lost.

West was just so good that it made average teams look awful and made good teams look bad. West’s opponents in the regular season won 53 percent of their games.

“I think what happened was we were beating people by so much that people felt like we must not be playing anyone but really bad teams,” Poole said. “We used that for motivation. What people didn’t realize is how hard we were working to be as good a team as we were. Yes, these girls are very talented, but there was a whole lot of work put in. The girls worked around my (middle school coaching) schedule, so there were a lot of late-night practices, but they never complained. They accepted their roles. We took them one at a time and we prepared for each game like that opponent could beat us if we didn’t play well. Most of the time, we played really, really  well.”

West was the fourth Rowan girls team in history to go undefeated, joining the 2004 and 2010 Salisbury squads and the 2021 Carson team that ran the table in the COVID season in an exclusive club.

By the numbers, West was one of the most dominating squads in Rowan girls basketball history.

The Falcons broke the school record for points per game, scoring 73.7 per game. That’s an incredible stat in an era of an automatic running clock when a team achieves a 40-point lead at halftime or in the second half. Without being slowed down by running clocks in virtually every game, West may have averaged 85 points.

The only other West team to average 70 points for a season was the 2003-04 team (23-5) that was coached by Toni Wheeler.

Not only did they score in flurries, the Falcons put up the stingiest defensive numbers for the program since the 1965-66 Falcons, who played in an era when teams normally scored in the 20s and 30s.

West won on an average night at the office by 73-29. That’s an averaging winning margin of 44 points.

“I had a great team in 2015-16 that went undefeated in the SPC and won 27 games, and I never thought I’d be lucky enough to have another group that talented, but then this group came along,” Poole said.

West Rowan was seeded No. 1 for the 3A playoffs. To reach the championship game, the Falcons had to beat, among others, the No. 2, No. 4 and No. 6 seeds in the bracket.

A long trip to McDowell County to beat previously unbeaten East Lincoln in a neutral site regional final had to be the toughest challenge. That was a 49-42 scramble, but the Falcons got through it.

In the 60-50 championship game against East No. 2 seed Rocky Mount, West struggled with shooting (especially free throws) and turnovers, but never trailed and won with defense and 60 rebounds.

“Exactly what we had talked about before the game,” Poole said. “Playing in those big arenas, there are going to be nerves and teams don’t shoot as well as they normally do, But you can’t let that affect defense and rebounding and we continued to do those things well.”

Lauren Arnold’s 16 rebounds in the state championship game was one of the memorable stats of the season.

At the end of it all, the smiles on the faces of the winners on both teams brought tears to coaches and parents and oceans of pride to every Rowan basketball fan.

Smiling broadest of all was Jamecia Huntley, who won a 2022 state championship with Salisbury and a 2023 title with the Falcons.

Two titles on the same Saturday brought back memories of the West and Salisbury twin football titles in 2010.

Poole, who never stops coaching, has already moved on now to middle school softball.

Brice may decide to go out as a champion and follow her daughter’s career at North Carolina Central University, but she hasn’t ruled out returning to lead the Hornets through another rebuilding phase.

“I’m doing the team laundry after the championship game, last time for the season, and the last jersey that comes out of the dryer is Kyla’s,” Brice said. “I stood there staring at it for a while, and I dropped a tear or two.”