When it came to the best boys’ basketball teams in Mecklenburg County back in the 1980s and 1990s, Garinger’s program was usually mentioned in the same breath with West Charlotte.
The Wildcats’ program has fallen on hard times in the past decade, but new coach Joshua Coley hopes to turn that around – and do so with a state title run this season.
That a big goal, considering that Garinger is coming off a 3-20 record in 2011-2012, and has won 10 games in the last four seasons under three coaches. But with a deep, senior-laden roster – and one really big freshman – Coley believes this is the season the Wildcats’ return to basketball prominence begins.
“We have a motto: ‘State championship or bust,’ ” said Coley, a former Johnson C. Smith guard who played semi-pro ball and has had assistant coaching jobs at Durham Hillside and N.C. Central.
“We’ve got some good things going on here. Realistically, if everything goes right, we stay focused and everyone keeps their heads, come March, we could be playing at N.C. State (the site of the 2013 NCHSAA 4A state championships).”
Garinger’s roster will be one of the most-experienced among the Mecklenburg County teams this season, with all five starters among the eight returning seniors.
Leading the group are guards Jamarkus Eison and Keith Davis, the Wildcats’ two leading scorers (at 17 and 16 points per game, respectively last season)
Garinger also has one of the region’s stronger back lines in 6-foot-8 forward Paul Coleman (nine rebounds and two blocks per game), 6-5 forward Bobby Morris (9 rpg, 3 bpg) and 6-3 forward Kemmi Pettway (11 rpg).
Then there’s the newcomer to Garinger’s roster – Raekwan Long, a 7-foot, 255-pound center who has been drawing national attention since he was in the sixth grade, when he stood just 6-foot-9.
Several recruiting websites have Long listed among the nation’s top 20 players from the Class of 2016, both because of his size and the offensive and defensive skills he currently possesses.
“Yeah, I’m a nice guy off the court, but when I get on the court, it just switches on,” said Long, snapping his fingers for emphasis. “I can’t be lackadaisical and be into the game, intensity-wise, otherwise. I want to keep getting better and better.”
However, what sets Long apart from other big men -- or other players, no matter their size – are things that Coley said “just can’t be coached.”
“He has that drive,” Coley said. “Some guys don’t have that thing inside of them, pushing them. He has that -- when he’s tired, he wants to go out and shoot 10 more shots. If he continues to work with the same work ethic he has now, he has the potential to be the best player ever to come out of Charlotte, N.C.; he’s got the potential to be the best player ever to come out of North Carolina period.”
Thanks to Long and the seniors, the Wildcats have been drawing attention from other parts of the state even before they’ve played a game.
Garinger has been invited to a pair of high-level tournaments in December – the Greensboro Showcase at UNC-Greensboro on Dec. 1, and the Bull City Classic in Durham on Dec. 27-29 – that draw some of the best teams on the East Coast.
“That’s going to be a very big opportunity for our guys,” Coley said. “Not only do they get to see the talent, they get to see how hard they work to get to the next level. Plus, it’s a chance to get our kids some more exposure.”
It’s also put a big target on the Wildcats this season, which begins Monday at home against North Mecklenburg.
“We’ve got a lot to prove," said Coleman, who is starting to draw attention from smaller NCAA Division I and D-II programs. “We’re all getting better as a team, and we’re all focused on one goal –- to get out of the shadow, that darkness, and move into the light.
“We want people to voice some excitement when they say ‘Oh, you go to Garinger?’ It hasn’t been like that – it’s usually been complete silence – but that’s going to change this year.”