High school basketball: Deep roots for West Rowan girls program

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 4, 2023


By Mike London

MOUNT ULLA — Those roundball scraps between the Mount Ulla and Cleveland girls in the years before West Rowan opened in the fall of 1959 must have been something else.

In the spring of 1959, six months before Mount Ulla, Cleveland and Woodleaf were consolidated into West Rowan High, Cleveland’s girls won the regular season conference championship by handing Mount Ulla its first home-court defeat in six seasons.

But Mount Ulla answered right back by winning the conference tournament, handing Cleveland its first – and only — loss of the 1958-59 season.

Mount Ulla’s girls had a coach who was famous.

James Oscar Stradley, who answered to Oscar, came from the Iredell community of Cool Springs. He served in World War II as a teenager, graduated from Appalachian State, coached at Stony Point High in Alexander County and arrived in Mount Ulla in 1952.

Stradley, who resembled current Carson volleyball coach Kelan Rogers a great deal, immediately started coaching league champions in baseball, boys basketball and girls basketball.

Counting regular-season and tournament titles, Stradley’s Mount Ulla teams won 17 conference championships in a dominating, five-year stretch.

Cleveland’s girls coach for the last two seasons before Rowan school consolidation was at least as remarkable as Stradley.

Eleanor Faye Shull, known universally as Nell, had spent childhood years in the small Burke County town of Drexel. Like Stradley, she had gone to Appalachian State to become a teacher.

She taught elementary school, but she was knowledgeable enough about basketball that she was called upon to coach Cleveland’s high school team.

Shull was spirited and feisty. She brought teamwork and she brought more attention to what was happening on the defensive half of the court. Cleveland’s superstar Sandra Somers was asked to sacrifice some points, but the team benefited when the scoring load was spread out among three girls.

Shull was a groundbreaker. She took charge in a Rowan County athletic world that always had assumed that males should be handling the coaching duties, even when it came to girls sports.

It was such big news that a woman was coaching the girls team at Cleveland that the Salisbury Post headed out there for an interview.

Long story short, Shull informed the male reporter that a woman could coach basketball at least as well as a man  — and added that there might be a female reporter who could do his job better.

It is said and it may be true that the rivalry between Mount Ulla and Cleveland’s girls burned with such heat that neither Bradley nor Shull was named as the first coach for West Rowan High’s girls program. That honor went to Betty Bryant, and West had a good first season in 1959-60. The Falcons were 13-7.

Stradley went back to Iredell County in 1959. He coached high school ball and also coached hoops at Mitchell College in Statesville. He died at 67 in 1993.

Shull became the first basketball coach at newly consolidated East Rowan High (Granite Quarry and Rockwell combined) in 1959-60, but it was a rough first season for her in the North Piedmont Conference.

She only coached the Mustangs one season.

Shull would serve for a time in the 1960s as the recreation leader at the Presbyterian Orphans’ Home at Barium Springs.

She would return to the classroom as a teacher at West Concord School in Morganton and was beloved there as a teacher and coach. The school annual was dedicated to her in 1970.

Shull finished an incredibly long working career when she retired in 2018 from the Statesville Montessori School, where she had been athletic director since 1989.

She’s still alive and kicking in Statesville. Some of her former players from the Cleveland teams stay in touch with her.

She turned 90 years old about a week before West Rowan won the 2022 Christmas tournament.

Shull’s legacy lives on in Rowan County.

Two women — West’s Ashley Poole and Salisbury’s Lakai Brice led their teams to state championships this season.