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Garinger coach Carlton Anthony believes Wildcats can be a winner again

Tuesday night, Garinger High School’s boys’ basketball team beat Myers Park 64-56. Garinger is the last-place team in the Southwestern 4A Conference.

For a rare night after a game, Wildcats coach Carlton Anthony – whom everyone calls “Spanky,” the nickname his grandmother gave him growing up – got himself a good night’s sleep. It’s been a long season for Anthony, 46, who is sitting at a place where a lot of other coaches have tried and failed at the same mission: to get Garinger back to its once-proud roots.

“I’ve had many sleepless nights,” Anthony said. “But my mother (Bertha Anthony) passed Nov. 10 at 66. She had breathing problems, a collapsed lung and a heart condition. She had it for 20 years. Doctors said they didn’t know how she survived that long. Man, I look back on that and say, ‘Losing ain’t all bad compared to losing your mother.’ And she instilled in me that you can’t dwell on it all the time. She always told me, ‘Think about how you’re going to get better.’ She would say, ‘Spanky, you’re worried about the loss you just had. Worry about how you will get better.’ ”

When Garinger went from Nov. 29 until Jan. 30 without a win this season, dropping 14 straight games, Anthony would always come home, grab his 11-year-old son, C.J., and talk about the effort. C.J. would make jokes and, eventually, make his father smile.

And Dad would worry about how he would make his team better.

“Daddy, it ain’t that bad,” C.J. would tell him. “Momma (and Anthony’s wife of 17 years, Annissa) said don’t dwell on it because you’ll get over it.”

And Anthony would, eventually, be able to close his eyes and sleep a little.

“My mindset would always be, ‘We’re going to get better,’ ” Anthony said.

At one time, Anthony was seen as a coaching hot-shot. A former point guard at Olympic and Livingstone College, Anthony started working at Vance in 1999, and he later replaced state championship-winning coach Kurt Wessler. He led Berry to a strong season once. But Anthony was always an interim coach and got only one season because he didn’t have his teaching certificate. He’ll get that later this year and hopes to be at Garinger for the long haul.

The Wildcats are working on their fifth basketball coach in seven seasons. In 1989, Garinger won a state championship. For years after, the Wildcats remained a power, even as its football team fell into a long funk, setting state and national records for losing streaks and futility. Now that losing is beginning to hit basketball, too.

Garinger’s team made the N.C. 4A Western Regionals in 2004 but has had one winning season since. Before Anthony took over, Garinger was 10-73 in the past four seasons. Garinger is 4-19 now, but has its first win streak, two games, since it won three in a row in December 2012.

“I think Spanky’s a good fit for Garinger,” said Wildcats athletics director Tony Huggins, a former state championship-winning coach at Independence High. “He brings good coaching but he also brings discipline. He’s a good mentoring figure for our athletes over here. Our guys are carrying themselves differently on and off the basketball court. I see they have more a seriousness about being a student-athlete. I see guys working harder.”

Anthony said he inherited a young team with exactly one kid with any real varsity experience. He promised them they would get better as the season went on. And if you look past the record, there is improvement. Garinger’s average margin of defeat before Christmas break was more than 20 points. After the holidays it’s less than half that. And heading into next week’s Southwestern 4A Conference tournament, Garinger has that win streak.

That’s progress.

The roster includes seven underclassmen, including sophomore guard Rayshawn Neal, who leads the team in scoring (18.4 ppg), assists (5.1) and steals (3.0). Neal is second in rebounding (5.4). With Neal and the rest of his young group, Anthony believes he has the pieces to achieve his goals – to make the N.C. 4A playoffs by Year 3 and to be a conference championship contender by Year 5.

“You’ve got to believe in yourself,” he said. “After one year, you can’t give up. I told the guys when I got the job, ‘I believe y’all can win.’ I said, ‘By the time we get through December, we should start clicking.’ But the belief wasn’t there. You walk around that schol and you’ve got some of the best athletes in Charlotte, but as we say in education, ‘Their Learned Behavior has taken over.’ They accepted losing. But you gotta go to those kids and show them you care. They’re not just athletes, but kids who want to be cared for. It’s a rough place to win, but show those kids you care for them, they can do anything.”

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