Here are the five best players I saw at the N.C. High School Athletic Association Western Regional championships last week.
Jah’Lil Carter, Butler: 6-foot-6 senior was dominant in a 61-58 loss to Southwest Guilford. He made 10-of-13 field goals and scored 20 points. He had seven rebounds, two assists and a steal before fouling out in the fourth quarter.
Kobe Langley, Southwest Guilford: 6-foot-1 sophomore guard is one of the quickest, most athletic players I’ve seen all year. It’s easy to see why he committed to Virginia Tech early. He made 6-of-11 field goals and had 15 points, three rebounds and two blocks.
Wendell Moore, Cox Mill: Moore is ranked as the state’s top sophomore. I’m thinking he’s got to be ranked among the state’s top 25 players, period. He’s that good. He had 23 points, 15 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal to lead his team to a 64-52 win over Morganton Freedom and into Saturday’s state championship game. Moore made 9-of-10 free throw attempts. His team, which shot 3-for-16 from the 3-point line, was 19-of-22 from the free throw line.
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Carter Phillips and Mason Hawks, North Surry: OK, I’m lumping these two seniors together and I’m cheating on “five” folks but they have led North Surry to an amazing playoff run to reach the state finals. That run included wins over two Charlotte Observer Sweet 16 teams -- Lincolnton and Forest Hills. In Saturday’s regional win over Forest Hills, Phillips made 12-of-18 field goal attempts and had 27 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Hawks had 19 points, three assists.
Gabby Smith, Hickory Ridge girls: She made 5-of-7 shots in a 55-42 win over Morganton Freedom in Saturday’s regional championship game on a day when her team shot 40 percent from the floor. She had nine rebounds and a steal. Her team is 31-0 heading into Saturday’s state final.
▪ There’s four Guilford County teams in state championships this week and none from Mecklenburg. That feels a little different. In fact, this is the first time since 1997-98 that no Mecklenburg County team has reached the state finals in NCHSAA 4A boys or girls basketball and football in the same school year.
Is this a trend? I wouldn’t bet on it. The talent pool is as deep as it’s ever been in Mecklenburg County, although some families are now moving into western Union County and Cabarrus County more often, and those schools are beginning to have success.
▪ Here’s a few Charlotte Observer-area teams to watch out for next season:
Carmel Christian: Coach Bryon Dinkins took a team of sophomores to a state final appearance. You can probably pencil in another next year, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Carmel face Gaston Day in the semis or championship. Gaston Day loses one key senior and returns four college recruits.
Cox Mill: state championship appearance this season and return the bulk of the stars, including Moore.
Hickory Ridge girls: most of the key players, including Smith, are back for coach Tolonda Rose. No matter what happens in Saturday’s state final, the Bulls will be a tough out in 2017-18.
Mallard Creek girls: lose two senior starters, but stars Ahlana Smith and Dazia Lawrence return -- and will not be happy about losing in the semis this season.
North Meck: state quarterfinalist brings nearly every key piece back.
Providence Day: Chargers return virtually everyone from a state semifinalist and injured starters Jacolbe Cowan, a 6-6 center, and Luke Stankavage, a 6-foot guard, will both return from injuries that cost them large chunks of the 2016-17 season.
▪ Speaking of Cabarrus County, it is sending Hickory Ridge’s girls and Cox Mill to the state finals Saturday. With Concord Robinson winning the 2016 championship, Cox Mill could bring the county its first back-to-back NCHSAA boys basketball state champions.
▪ My email and text was blowing up late Saturday after Lincoln Charter qualified for the state final in 1A where it will face Durham’s Kestrel Heights Charter. Last week, the State Board of Education voted to close Kestrel Heights following an internal investigation that revealed 160 of Kestrel’s 399 graduates since 2008 didn’t meet the state’s requirements for a high school diploma.
Athletically, some 1A coaches and athletics directors feel that charter schools have an advantage. Current NCHSAA rules say that a student can attend a charter school if he lives within the county where the school sits, or within a 25-mile radius of the school. That allows charter schools to, in theory, gain an athletic advantage over other small 1A schools because those charter schools have a much wider geographic area to draw students from.
Some coaches who speak to me off the record want the state to have the charter schools play in their own classification, or even one with non-boarding parochial schools like Charlotte Catholic and Raleigh Cardinal Gibbons, which have similar eligibility rules.
▪ I thought the NCHSAA made a mistake putting the 3A and 4A regionals at UNC-Greensboro Saturday. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of fans ended up outside in line before at least two of the four games. The gym is small (and the media had severe wifi issues) and I would hate to have been a fan who drove a long way to see a loved one play the biggest game of their lives and be stuck outside in line missing it. The smaller schools played at the much larger Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem.
I’ve long thought that Charlotte should get involved in regionals and it’ll take a sponsor to make it happen, but it’s time. And honestly, UNC Charlotte would be a great venue for state or regional championships. But -- final thought -- it just seems like eastern and western regionals should be in Raleigh and Charlotte and state finals in Greensboro, nearer the center of the state.
▪ Last thought: back in the ‘90s, I used to advocate for eliminating the CMS conference tournaments and holding a city championship. Recently, some readers have been asking me about the possibility now. I (still) think it’s a great idea. It would create a lot of interest and a lot of revenue for local schools -- and it would be event students, and the community would look forward to.
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr