South Central head coach Chris Cherry is from Plymouth, a town of 3,000 people located in Washington County, east of Greenville.
Plymouth, as Cherry put it, is a basketball town despite having never won a state title in hoops. The old Plymouth High won plenty of football championships, but were 0-2 in 1A basketball title games. Cherry led the Vikings to one of those state championship trips, in 2002, his second year as head coach.
Now in his ninth year as the head coach at South Central, Cherry hopes to turn Winterville, located seven miles south of Greenville, into another basketball town.
That’s the kind of environment he grew up and coached in. South Central (29-1, 12-0), led by North Carolina recruit Day’Ron Sharpe, is well on its way. The Falcons will play in their second state championship on Saturday, taking on West Charlotte (25-6, 12-2) at noon in the 4A title game at Reynolds Coliseum. The Lions have a rich basketball history of their own, with five state titles, having won it all as recently as 2011.
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South Central, which opened in 2002, has been trending in the right direction for some time now. It started out as a 3A program and made a state championship appearance in 2011, falling to Hunter Huss, 63-62.
The Falcons have won 20 games in eight of the nine seasons Cherry has been at the helm.
“We feel like we’ve built a solid program,” Cherry said. “And we don’t see that changing in the future.”
Winterville is in a tricky spot. It’s close enough to Greenville that some folks automatically link the two towns together. It’s also north of Kinston, a town that for the longest time has been the measuring stick of eastern North Carolina basketball. The Vikings won four straight 2A state championships from 2012-2015, back-to-back 3A titles in 1964 and 65 and made several other trips to the title game in all NCHSAA classifications. In all, Kinston has won 11 state championships, third all-time in North Carolina history.
No. 3 South Central has been on the brink several times before, falling in the east regional the previous two seasons before finally getting over the hump after a 70-50 win over No. 1 Millbrook on Saturday. Loses on that stage in the past became a learning lesson for Cherry, who coached in a state title game at age 31 and assumed it would be easy to return. It hasn’t been.
“My biggest thing to them is once you lose and we come back in that spring for workouts, just because you went this year doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed for you next year,” Cherry said. “Anything can happen, injuries, matchups, so you take advantage of every opportunity.”
Cherry said it was a one-point loss to Leesville Road in the 2017 regional final when he realized his team was turning the corner. That team took the floor with four sophomores and a freshman playing majority of the minutes.
That freshman was Sharpe, who was 6-foot-7 and is now 6-10 and the No. 2 player in the state in the class of 2020. Sharpe committed to UNC over the summer and has been unstoppable in the playoffs. Sharpe averaged 15.9 points per game and 9.8 rebounds during the record season. He’s been a monster the last two games, scoring 32 points in a blowout win at No. 2 Wakefield, then going for 26 points and 16 rebounds in a regional final on the campus of ECU over the weekend.
The four-star prospect hasn’t even come close to reaching his full potential, Cherry said.
“He’s developing and he’s still growing,” Cherry said. “That’s the most important thing. He’s growing into his body and he’s going to continue to grow up. His three-point shot has improved tremendously, his ball handling and he is such an unselfish player. I still think it’s another couple of levels he’s going to go.”
If Sharpe has another level to go this year that could mean bad news for West Charlotte, led by its own future ACC player in Florida State commit Patrick Williams. It would also mean that Winterville, in the shadow of Greenville and a stone’s throw away from Kinston, would make a name for itself on the basketball landscape, proving that 4A basketball in the 252 area code should be taken seriously.
“It means a lot. Especially since we’re one of the smaller 4A schools in the state,” Cherry said. “It says a lot about our kids and our culture and the path we took over nine years. It’s no magic formula, it’s just blood sweat and tears.”