By Earl Vaughan Jr.
Although Cumberland County has teams still competing in the N.C. High School Athletic Association football playoffs, it’s already time for the 2021-22 basketball season to begin.
Basketball games for football-playing schools can begin as early as Monday.
Here’s a quick look at some of the top county teams from last season and their prospects for the upcoming campaign.
In last year’s pandemic-shortened schedule, Terry Sanford and Westover were neck and neck among Cumberland County teams, with the Bulldogs posting an 11-2 record and reaching the third round of the NCHSAA playoffs, while Westover was 11-3 and reached the second round. Pine Forest and Cape Fear were the only other county teams over .500, with Pine Forest falling in the first round of the postseason.
Both Terry Sanford and Westover return solid players from last season and are hopeful of success in what all the coaches hope will be a return to more normal basketball.
Westover coach George Stackhouse echoed that sentiment. “I hope it’s over but you never know,’’ he said of COVID-19. “We’re going to come prepared to do what we have to do to have a season.’’
Stackhouse suffered a major loss in the graduation of standout D’Marco Dunn, who is now a freshman for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels and first-year head coach Hubert Davis.
But Stackhouse does return a couple of key veterans in multi-purpose player Mikey Campbell, a 6-foot-4 swing player, and 5-10 guard McKiyah Tarver.
Stackhouse said Campbell has a chance to play Division I college basketball. “He’s a big-time centerpiece, probably more athletic than D’Marco,’’ he said. “He’s worked a lot on his game and added some things to his game that are going to help us.’’
Because of his versatility, Stackhouse said, Campbell will be called on to play various positions for the Wolverines. “He’s got a chance to be a big-time defender as well,’’ Stackhouse said.
Another key returner is Tarver, now in his third year on the Westover varsity. “He’s a junior but he brings toughness and experience,’’ Stackhouse said.
Also back is another guard, 5-10 Vander Williams.
Stackhouse said the Wolverines will get a boost when the school’s football team finishes its run in the state 3-A playoffs. “We’ve got some football guys who will play prominent roles,’’ he said. “Usually the football guys were role players.’’
For Terry Sanford, head coach Karl Molnar is still dealing with the loss of veteran guard Kaylon Keys to graduation. Keys is among five seniors gone for the Bulldogs, but his departure is proving to be a bigger void for Molnar to fill.
A plus for the Bulldogs is the return of Molnar’s son, Davis, a 6-6 senior forward/guard bound for Furman.
Davis has the most game experience of the Terry Sanford returnees. His dad is counting on him to be the glue and consistency that will help the rest of the squad pull together.
Terry Sanford has some size to complement Davis in 6-6 Jackson Link and 6-5 Kimani Brantley.
Molnar will be counting on a trio of players at the guard positions, among them 5-9 Tyler Peuster, 5-9 Myles Eakins and 5-10 Amaru Barnes.
The Terry Sanford football players just reported for practice this week so Molnar is still trying to figure out what combinations of players will work best for him.
“If the new faces play to their ability we’ll be all right,’’ Molnar said. “In my mind’s eye, I feel like it’s going to be a normal basketball season.’’
Terry Sanford and Jack Britt had the best records in the county in girls’ basketball last season.
Terry Sanford edged E.E. Smith by one game for top honors in the Patriot Athletic Conference, finishing 10-1 and making the second round of the state playoffs. Britt, also 10-1, won the Sandhills Conference. In the Patriot, E.E. Smith, Pine Forest, South View and Cape Fear all finished above .500. Britt was the only county team in the Sandhills to top the .500 mark for the year.
Britt coach Nattlie McArthur will be hard-pressed to repeat last year’s success as she lost six players, five of them starters.
The top veteran back for McArthur is senior forward Jennifer Pongon, 5-11.
“She’s been here three years,’’ McArthur said. “She knows a lot. She’ll be one of our most important players.’’
Newcomers look to play a big role for the Buccaneers this season.
One of them is Alexia White, a combination guard with what McArthur calls a high basketball IQ. Another key player will be guard Kiera Meacham.
Also among the newcomers is Alexis Plumber, who didn’t come out for the team last season. “She has good energy, good drive,’’ McArthur said. “She brings that passion and effort to practice that we know will roll over into games. She’s very coachable.’’
As a whole, McArthur said the Wolverines will be smaller and more guard-oriented than they were last season. Pongon will play a forward position this year but is really more of a guard. “It’s going to look a little different with more guards on the floor,’’ McArthur said.
She expects some of the better teams in the county to include Seventy-First, South View and Cape Fear.
“Any night it’s going to depend on who’s bringing it,’’ she said. “I think we’re going to be real competitive.’’
As strong as Terry Sanford’s team was a year ago, head coach Thurston Robinson thinks his Bulldogs could be even better this year.
The top returnee for the Bulldogs is Miya Giles-Jones, last year’s Patriot Athletic Conference Player of the Year.
“I’m expecting her to be strong on both ends, offense and defense,’’ Robinson said. The 6-0 Giles-Jones will move to a wing position but will also see time at guard.
Another returner is 5-7 guard Amiah Savage. Robinson said Savage put on a 3-point shooting display in a recent series of scrimmages. Also back is point guard and team captain Tamia Morris. “She’ll be the backbone of the team,’’ Robinson said. Another player who will help at the guard spot is freshman Breonna Roff, along with Zahara Gerald.
“We’re going to be playing that uptempo, fast-paced game this year,’’ Robinson said. “I think that will make us even more successful.’’