RAMSEUR — It was at the end of a hard-fought state championship game last March when Eastern Randolph High School boys coach Johnny Thomas loudly declared into the microphone at the post game press conference that the Wildcats WOULD be back next year.
Next year is finally here for the Wildcats as they are set to open defense of their West Regional championship Thursday at Oak Grove against a team that will have already played seven times.
“I see intensity, I see want, I see desire, I see the will to win, but I also see a lack of experience,” Thomas said of his team’s preseason, which started a couple of weeks later than most schools due to the success of the football team.
“We lost a lot of key guys that allowed us to play a certain way. Our style will never change. But we have younger guys. We have a lot of younger athletes who have ability. We just have to fit all the pieces together.”
The Wildcats are coming off a season in which they finished 29-3, including 11-1 in the Piedmont Athletic Conference. ER dropped a season-opening battle with Southwest Guilford on Dec. 2 and then won 19 straight games, not falling again until a 75-66 setback to Southwestern Randolph on Jan. 31.
The Wildcats then won 10 straight games, including playoff wins over Cherryville, Avery County, Robbinsville, South Stokes and Bishop McGuinness before falling 84-73 to Wilson Prep for the state 1-A title.
While losing Davonte Brooks, Pierce Leonard and Connor Carter among others is going to be difficult, Thomas said he put together a schedule that should help the Wildcats prepare for what lies ahead.
“We are going to play a lot of teams in our conference who are going to be good,” Thomas said.”Then being prepared for the playoffs means we are going to have to compete against private schools.
“When we lost in the state championship, it was a loss that was unnecessary. Everyone we played for the most part was a public school and everyone goes by the same guidelines. Some schools don’t have to do that and we have to play stacked teams like them to prepare us for the future.”
ER has games against Grace Charter, Swansboro, Reidsville and Farmville Central.
Returning are Timmy Brower and Nicah Taylor, two explosive players loaded with athleticism. Brower averaged 15.3 points per game and Taylor was at 10.5. They will be counted on to do the bulk of the scoring, but transfer Carter Revelle, the team’s 6-4, 200-pound quarterback on the football field, will definitely add bulk in the middle.
Julian Brooks and Will Stalker will add experience and freshmen Kobe Walker and Caden McCallum could see significant minutes.
While most high school teams started the season in November, Thomas had really strong reasons to wait until this week.
“Our football team is always really, really good and we are a 1-A school, so most of our talent is going to come from multiple sports,” Thomas said. “And to get in my shape, which is different than most individuals expect, takes time. Anyone who has ever trained with me knows that when we get out here ready to play the game of basketball, they will be ready. We needed time to prepare mentally and physically for the game of basketball.”
What about the possibility of returning to the state title game?
“I feel we have what it takes, we just have to go out and do it,” Thomas said. “Our goal is to go out and win the state championship every year, that’s not going to change. We are going to bring that state championship to ER. Whether it’s this year, or next year or the year after that. I tell these kids the community is behind you. There is a lot of good talent, but ER has been at the bottom for so long. It’s time we emerge as a top contender.”
The Wildcats are well on their way.