High school athletics: West’s Clarke repeats as Tracy Connor Award winner

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 30, 2024




By Mike London

MOUNT ULLA — After the 2023 Dale’s Sporting Goods Sam Moir Christmas Classic, West Rowan girls basketball coach Ashley Poole requested Emma Clarke’s career scoring total.

Poole looks after her players like they’re her own kids and she wanted to make sure Clarke scored 1,000 points. That’s because Clarke has been super for the program and because 1,000 high school points provide a lifetime memory. Clarke’s classmate Lauren Arnold had reached 1,000 as a junior. De’Mya Phifer, another classmate, was on the verge of 1,000.

But the stat sheet didn’t provide Poole with sure-thing news as far as Clarke.

Clarke had accumulated 775 points and was scoring at pace that would fall a bit short of 1,000 even if West went all the way. Clarke was averaging a modest 10.8 points per game. West was overwhelming teams by scores such as 93-11 and 76-10, which meant Clarke was sitting down some. It also meant Clarke wasn’t shooting much. In a 72-24 win against South Rowan, Clarke scored a grand total of one point. She’s 6-foot-1 and she jumps really well, so she can score at will most nights, but she wasn’t looking to embarrass anyone.

After Christmas, Poole played Clarke a little longer and encouraged her to shoot a little more. She averaged better than 15 points per game after Christmas and earned her spot as a first team All-Rowan County player. More forceful offense from Clarke, who finished her career with over 1,100 points, also had the effect of making West an even better team. West had quite a few talented basketball players, but Clarke always was the highest-percentage option. West went 31-1 and won its second straight 3A state championship. Clarke contributed a double-double in the state championship game.

“Scoring 1,000 points and getting to share that with teammates and coaches will be a great memory,” Clarke said. “I’ll have great memories of the regional final and of the state championship game. But I think my best memory will be of our fans. Busloads of them came to support us in Winston-Salem, and when we got back to the school, they were there lining the walkways to the gym, still cheering for us.”

Lauren Arnold won her second straight MVP award in the 3A state championship game, while Clarke was named West’s Most Outstanding Player. Clarke was also honored as West’s Sportsmanship Award winner.

While Clarke’s basketball accomplishments deserved applause, what’s really impressive about her journey to 1,000 points is that hoops is her third-best sport.

She was All-State twice in volleyball and All-State three times in softball. Those are teams picked by the North Carolina Coaches Association.

It was no shock that the Tennessee softball recruit was honored recently as the NCHSAA’s Pat Best Memorial Award winner as Female Athlete of the Year for the 2023-24 school year.

Male and female athlete of the year awards have been announced by the NCHSAA since the 1985-86 school year. Clarke is the first Rowan female to be honored and only the second Rowan County athlete. Salisbury’s Romar Morris, a track, football and basketball phenom, was the male winner for the 2010-11 school year.

There are some who believe that Clarke is the best three-sport female athlete in Rowan County history. They can add that award to their argument.

Clarke is the Rowan County Female Athlete of the Year for the second straight time. She’ll receive the Tracy Connor Award for that.

If you weren’t around for the early 1990s, you may not know about Tracy Connor, one of Rowan’s all-time basketball ladies.

Connor scored a lot of points for South Rowan basketball teams and was the school record-holder when she graduated. Connor arrived at South as a sophomore. While she only got to play three high school seasons, her impact can be seen in the Raiders’ won-lost records, three of the best in school history — 23-5, 26-3 and 24-3. South was competing in the 4A Central Piedmont Conference then and went 37-5 in conference games. On top of that, Connor won the discus and the shot put in the NCHSAA’s 1992 4A Track and Field Championships.

Connor was ACC Rookie of the Year at Wake Forest. She had a game against N.C. State with 35 points and 22 rebounds. She led Wake in scoring four years, totaled 1,619 points for the Demon Deacons, grabbed 906 rebounds. and is still in the all-time top 10 for the program in both categories. She was the second Wake Forest woman to sign a WNBA contract and she graduated not only from Wake, but from Wake’s physician assistant program. She’s in the Wake Forest Sports Hall of Fame — the first Black female to be inducted — and a banner in her honor hangs in the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

That’s the arena where West Rowan won its 2024 3A basketball state championship, a fact which ties Clarke and Connor together very neatly.

Clarke spent her high school summers playing softball, which is her primary sport, so she was always a little behind when volleyball started in August. It didn’t take her long to catch up.

As the years went by, she made a transition from being a front-row smasher to an all-round player. By her junior season, she was leading West in just about everything except assists. She doubled up as Rowan County Player of the Year and South Piedmont Conference Player of the Year as a senior. She had a match this season in which she totaled 29 kills, 18 digs and five blocks. She had 391 kills as a senior and 935 for her career.

“As talented as anyone I ever coached, but she also had one of the best attitudes and was one of the hardest-working,” said Jan Dowling, West’s former volleyball coach. “Emma always wanted to be coached as hard as I could coach her. I coached her hard, and she kept getting better. I’ll remember that Emma made sure I won my last home game.”

Clarke’s best volleyball memory from her senior year was a 3-2 win against South Rowan late in the season.

“Just a very special team win for us because South was so good this season,” Clarke said.

On the softball field, Clarke, West’s shortstop as a junior and senior, always was one of the state’s best position players. She was a three-time Rowan County Player of the Year. As a slugger, she left her mark on the state record book. Her 43 career homers are second all-time for the NCHSAA.

She would’ve hit more homers than that, but she missed two or three softball games every year — a total of 10 during her four-year career — because softball started before West finished the basketball playoffs.

As a senior, Clarke batted .542 with 15 home runs and 52 RBIs. She had 154 RBIs in four seasons.

“She’s an elite player and has to be the state’s best player who isn’t a pitcher,” West softball coach Jimmy Greene said. “She’s an incredible sight. She’s not only as good a hitter as I’ve ever seen, she can field and she can fly on the bases. She finally got conference player of the year as a senior, but when you lead the state in homers and RBIs, it’s hard to argue.”

Beyond the field and gym, Clarke was an ideal ambassador for female athletics and for playing sports year-round.

She won the JT Bost Sportsmanship Award that goes to one Rowan County male and female every school year.

“Emma is so deserving of every award she gets,” Poole said. “She not only led our basketball team, she led all three of the West teams she played on with integrity and with respect for the sport and for her opponents. Her desire to win was great, but it was never overshadowed by her willingness to be a great teammate and to be a great competitor. It’s always refreshing to see such a talented player show everyone respect.”

Added Greene, ‘There’s a reason that parents of young softball player brought them to watch her and talk to her. Emma had a great message for all of them — that playing sports has been a blessing for her.”

Clarke, who began playing softball when she was 6, took a short break with a family vacation at Oak Island, but she has continued to swing a bat this summer as she prepares for SEC softball. She’s already played in a Florida tournament. She heads to Colorado with Team N.C. on Monday. She’ll also compete this summer in Illinois and California.

One day she’ll look back on an historic high school career and smile. She played on Falcon teams that won 237 games, lost 52 and tied 1.

The breakdown on that is 77-19 in volleyball; 88-12 in basketball, and 72-21-1 in softball. That’s a lot of winning.

Clarke played on at least one conference champion in all of her sports. None of her teams ever finished lower than third in the league.

She played on five conference champions, five conference runners-up and two third-place teams.

All of her softball teams finished in the top six in the final 3A West rankings by MaxPreps. All of her basketball teams finished in the top nine and two were No. 1. All of her volleyball teams finished in the top 13.

“I always stayed busy playing sports,” Clarke said. “I was lucky to be playing with my best friends and playing for great coaches. I enjoyed every minute of high school.”

Clarke’s family and coaches already had been informed but they did a good job of keeping it a secret that she was going to be recognized as NCHSAA Female Athlete of the Year. They traveled to Greensboro for the awards ceremony, but it turned out to be a much bigger deal than Clarke expected.

“They were really successful at surprising me,” Clarke said. “They told me we were going up there for some recognition for the sportsmanship award from the basketball game.”

Clarke may have been shocked to find out she was the state’s best female athlete, but she’s the only one in North Carolina who was.