By Earl Vaughan Jr.
It’s been nearly 10 months since Cumberland County schools were on the basketball court competing. They were shut down in mid-March last year when the COVID-19 pandemic quickly became a national concern.
This week, after a brief return to practice, county schools are back on the court in near-empty gyms playing again, but the pandemic remains a constant concern. Coaches and players must deal with a variety of restrictions in hopes of being able to play while preventing the spread of the disease.
The biggest restriction is that all players must wear masks during competition. This poses obvious problems for the athletes trying to breathe while exerting themselves physically.
It’s also a challenge to coaches, who, in addition to trying to figure a winning combination on the court, have to factor in different levels of player fitness and ability to adjust to the mask in determining substitution patterns.
Westover boys’ coach George Stackhouse had less than two weeks of workouts with his team before it took the court earlier this week for a season-opening loss to Terry Sanford. Stackhouse’s team was declared N.C. High School Athletic Association state 3-A champion last season when the pandemic forced cancellation of the scheduled state title game with 3-A Western winner Morganton Freedom.
“Kids are getting winded quicker because they’re not able to take in the same amount of oxygen,’’ he said. “We’ll have to use some of our other timeouts that we normally use for strategy to rest our athletes.’’
The NCHSAA has added a rule calling for a 60-second timeout after the first dead ball at four-minute mark of each quarter to allow players from both teams time to grab a breath.
E.E. Smith’s girls, who shared the 3-A state title with Southeast Guilford, have undergone a major transition, with some players transferring to other schools and others graduating early.
Smith head coach Dee Hardy said she’s uncertain if similar things have happened at other schools because of COVID-19 concerns. “We’ve been taking it one day at a time, trying to stress the little things,’’ Hardy said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get through the season.’’
For now, Hardy said it’s good just to be back on the court, even with all the hurdles, so the players and coaches can socialize and enjoy some form of competition. “You want to run and hug and say how have you been?’’ Hardy said.
“It’s a new normal.’’
Here’s a brief look at the prospects for county boys’ and girls’ teams:
Coach: Isaiah Walker
Outlook: Junior Demetri Patterson has been with the Buccaneers since his freshman season. Demario Norris is a senior who left after his freshman season but returned to Britt in December.
Walker said success hinges on executing offensive and defensive concepts for a full game. He expects a serious challenge in the Patriot Athletic Conference as two league members, Lumberton and Pinecrest, advanced to last year’s 4-A East regional finals.
Coach: Kristin Jones
Outlook: A pair of seniors with varsity experience, Ty’Rell McLuca and Marviere Smith, return to lead the Eagles. First-year coach Jones has a young team that will face a variety of challenges, but that should evolve as the season progresses.
Coach: Alphonza Kee
Outlook: Sophmore Tremayne Parker and junior B.J. McDonald are the projected leaders of the Colts. Kee said his team has backcourt depth, experience and continuity. As with all this year’s teams, Kee said the biggest challenge will be the pandemic, a lack of preparation and virtual learning.
Coach: Jonathan Grimes
Outlook: Seniors Josh Graham and Jarrod Kenney are the leading returners for the Bears. With only three seniors on the roster the team will be inexperienced. Grimes said he’s been pleased with the attitude and work ethic in the early going.
Coach: James Peaden
Outlook: A pair of returning sophomores, Isaiah Washington and Jordan Jones, will lead the Trojans. Peaden feels his team will continue to buy into defense and rebounding and that they have the tools to win the Patriot Athletic Conference.
Coach: Karl Molnar
Outlook: The Bulldogs are led by one of the county’s top prospects, junior Davis Molnar, along with senior Kaylon Keys. In spite of the returners, head coach Molnar labels this a rebuilding season and expects a real challenge from tough competition in the Patriot Athletic Conference.
Coach: Brandan Barabino (interim)
Outlook: Sophomores Derrick Green and Jared Davis are expected to lead the young Falcons, who only return three seniors. “We are young and a bit inexperienced, but the future is bright at Seventy-First,’’ Barabino said.
Coach: Bryan Tillman (interim)
Outlook: The Golden bulls will be led by Malik Brunson and Javeon Best. Tillman said he has a young team that is developing but hopes to be competitive in the Patriot Athletic Conference.
Coach: Travis Lemanski
Outlook: Juniors Ce’Davion Wimbley and Jarod Brown head the South View returners. Lemanski is hopeful their experience will be enough to help his fourth-place team from last season deal with challenges of both the league and the pandemic this year.
Coach: George Stackhouse
The Wolverines are led by one of the top players in the state, Unviersity of North Carolina commit D’Marco Dunn, along with another veteran, Darius Jewel.
Stackhouse said it will take time for the Wolverines to develop cohesion and settle into their roles.
Coach: Nattlie McArthur
Outlook: The Buccaneers are coming off the first Sandhills Athletic Conference title in school history. Returning are Nyla Cooper, who has committed to play at Howard, along with Ashara Hayes. McArthur said with a core group of young talent and a mix of newcomers she is hopeful of competing for the conference title again.
Coach: Brian Graham
Outlook: The Colts return senior Grace Blake and freshman Jayda Angel. Graham feels he’s got a good balance of youth and experience. Defense will be the key to success. Like most coaches, he said he and his players are just glad for the chance to play in these unusual times.
Coach: Jernard Grant
Outlook: The team’s lone returning player is junior Sierra Glover. Grant is also expecting early help from freshman Mariyah Massey.
While the Eagles are young and inexerpienced, Grant is hopeful this could be the best Byrd girls team in years.
Coach: Rick Rhoda
Outlook: Senior Morgan Brady and sophomore Nylah Worley are the top returners for the Bears. Brady won’t be available for the Bears until she finishes her stint with the Bears’ volleyball team, which is headed to the state playoffs after winning the Patriot Athletic Conference championship. Because of the volleyball team’s success, the Bears will begin basketball season with six players. Rhoda expects a rebuilding and learning season for his team.
Coach: Kayla Pless
Outlook: Senior Montasia Jones and sophomore Valerie Veauthier top the list of returners. Pless said the team is heavy with guards and will run the ball and resort to the press often.
Coach: Thurston Robinson
Outlook: The Bulldogs will be led by a pair of E.E. Smith transfers, Miya Giles-Jones and Ke’Onna Bryant. Robinson said he hopes to control the pace of the game and play tough defense.
Coach: Ignatius Williams
Outlook: Williams returns two All-Sandhills Athletic Conference players, Ayanna Williams and Amore Kirkland. He returns a total of four starters from last year’s second-place conference finisher that reached the second round of the NCHSAA 4-A playoffs. Williams expects to contend for the conference title again.
Coach: Dee Hardy
Outlook: Key returners for the Golden Bulls are Jordan Everett, Jada Priebe, plus newcomer from Cape Fear Skylar White.
Despite some key transfer losses, Hardy said this year’s core group has experience, works hard and is coachable. “It feels like family,’’ she said. Conditioning is a concern early because of limited workouts and the requirement all players must play while wearing a mask. “We do understand the seriousness of COVID,’’ she said. “Hopefully everything will work in our favor.’’
Coach: Brent Barker
Outlook: Juniors Clarissa Warren and Aimee Evans lead the returners for the Tigers. Barker said he hopes to be competitive in what has been an incredibly tough Patriot Athletic Conference the last few seasons.
Coach: Michael Ferguson
Outlook: Junior Jaden Ford and sophomore Harmony Martin lead the list of returning players for the Wolverines. Because of graduation losses and issues with COVID-19 Ferguson said the team will be extremely young, but he hopes it will become competitive as the season progresses.