By Earl Vaughan Jr.
Championship basketball seasons are always memorable, but the 2020-21 campaign for Terry Sanford High School’s boys and girls will likely go down in history as nearly unforgettable.
Both teams survived all the added challenges of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic to navigate an abbreviated schedule of games and take home top honors in the Patriot Athletic Conference.
But the struggles are far from over for both. Because the conference had a few regular-season games left to make up, a decision was made to scrap this year’s conference tournaments for girls and boys so those games could be made up this week.
That means both Terry Sanford teams will have to settle for only practicing with no live competition for several days before the N.C. High School Athletic Association state playoffs begin next week.
Because of the threat of icy weather in other parts of the state, the NCHSAA said late Thursday that it would delay announcing this year’s truncated state playoff brackets until Sunday afternoon.
Bulldog boys’ coach Karl Molnar is trying not to let all the problems overwhelm him, saying he adopted a philosophy early this season of focusing on what he could control. He warned his team to make wise choices to avoid exposure to COVID-19 for the benefit of the whole team.
“We tried to be smart, putting a winning effort together with all the craziness going on around us,’’ Molnar said.
Molnar had high expectations for this team before the season started. “We knew we had a lot of solid returners coming back, and then we picked up some young guys over the summer,’’ he said. “They have been helpful.’’
The Bulldogs have leaned heavily on Molnar’s son, Davis, who Molnar calls the team’s glue guy. “He’s not always our leading scorer, but he’s one of our most consistent scorers, rebounders and assist guys,’’ Molnar said.
Another solid player who Molnar has been coaching for almost 10 years is Kaylon Keys.
“He has really stepped up this year and is playing at a really high level,’’ Molnar said. “His level has been the difference maker.’’
Keys said the biggest adjustment he, as well as other players, have had to make this year is playing while wearing the mask required because of COVID-19 protocols.
“At first it was a little different,’’ he said. “At times you couldn’t breathe because sweat got caught in the mask.’’
He stuck with a cloth version of the mask and has finally adjusted to it.
As for the time off before the state playoffs begin, Keys said the Bulldogs just need to compete at practice every day to stay sharp.
“I’ve been trying to give it my all every game,’’ he said. “With my senior season cut short, I might as well give it all for all the games I’ve got.’’
Karl Molnar said he’d definitely rather be playing this week but will take advantage of the layoff to allow some players to heal from minor injuries while checking out games on the NFHS Network to look at other potential playoff teams from around the state.
“I haven’t been able to travel and go watch,’’ he said. “I think you can get what you need (from the videos). It at least gives you a feeling you’re not so blindsided.’’
Like Molnar, Bulldog girls’ coach Thurston Robinson has focused on talking to his girls about avoiding visits to public places that might put them in contact with larger groups of people.
He also set up regular communication with his team to check on their mental well-being during periods of isolation from their friends and teammates.
He sensed early on this was a special group of players. “When we started conditioning I pushed them to the limit,’’ he said. “I had no one really complaining and they were coming back and coming back.’’
Miya Giles-Jones has been the leader of the squad, setting an example with her tough play Robinson said. Amiah Savage has led the Bulldogs on the defensive end of the court, usually drawing the assignment to cover the opponent’s top player.
Robinson hopes Tamia Morris, who has been recovering from a knee injury suffered against Pine Forest a couple of weeks ago, will be healthy for the playoffs.
Giles-Jones said Robinson has done a good job of making the season fun for the Bulldogs, trying to take their minds off of all the COVID-related restrictions.
“We just fist bump instead of high five,’’ she said. “It hasn’t been a big deal. We started a group chat and started talking outside of practice. Communication was the key for us.’’
She is not concerned about the layoff before the state playoffs. “I think everybody is going to stay focused, stay locked in,’’ she said. “We’re staying in shape pretty much.’’
Robinson said Terry Sanford’s final game, a 51-50 win over conference rival E.E. Smith, told him a lot about his team.
“I’m glad that game was tight,’’ he said. “When we were under pressure they stayed focused. That game helped us out in the long run.’’
They even stay focused on days off he said. Last Saturday he gave them time away from practice while he went to school to do some work. The team showed up on their own time for a shoot around he said.
“They are a good group of girls,’’ he said.