By Pete Zamplas
Hendersonville Bearcat boys lead their conference, while other local basketball public high school varsity squads look to end the regular season this week on positive notes.
The Bearcats entered this final week a game ahead of Pisgah and Brevard in Mountain Six (M6) play, after bedeviling Brevard Blue Devils 76-54 Friday on the road. HHS owns a tiebreaker over BHS by being 2-0 head-to-head. The Cats demolished Brevard 87-45 on Jan. 17.
Pisgah nipped HHS by two on Feb. 4, to tighten standings and knot their series. HHS tamed the Bears 72-64, on Jan. 14.
Hendersonville closed the regular season Wednesday, at East Henderson which has been winless at 0-9 in the 2A M6. Thus, odds strongly favor HHS finishing atop the conference at 8-2.
Doing so likely assures the Cats of being an upper seed, at home in early playoff rounds as they have often been in recent seasons. HHS would be 19-5 overall, East 5-17.
Pursuing its first state title since 1992, HHS has dominated most foes this season with sharpshooting, tenacious defense, fast breaks, and outright speed.
Guards Dwight Canady (23 ppg., 6.6 reb., 2.4 steals), Keenan Wilkins (18 ppg., 3 st.) and Carson Redden (10.7 ppg., 5.4 assists, 4 steals, 6 reb.) trigger the attack as Guardians of the Cat Galaxy.
Gavin Strickland (10.1 ppg., 8.2 reb.) at 6 feet 4 is a force inside. The co-captain is among merely two seniors on the 14-man squad.
Hendersonville scored at least 75 points in 14 of its first 23 games. HHS took it to the county’s other teams by big margins: West (26, 22 points), North (26, 17), and East (22). Other blasted victims include Madison (26), and even larger 3A Asheville (13 in the opener) and strong Roberson (13, 11).
Last week, a pivotal 29-point blowout of perennial power Smoky Mountain avenged a six-point loss a month earlier. HHS won by 18 on Jan. 24, at Franklin. FHS is fourth in the M6, but at 15-7 has the second-most wins overall.
In their other win over the Panthers, the Bearcats showed they can pull out close games. They beat FHS 65-60 at home on Jan. 7. This is important since HHS has dropped some of its close games — by 3 to lofty Reynolds, four in the other game with Asheville, and that two-point loss at Pisgah. The only lopsided loss for HHS was by 13 at R-S Central Dec. 6.
On Jan. 7, Franklin came on to take the lead. But HHS looked poised, finishing well to win. Wilkins nailed a three-pointer, for a 61-57 lead with two minutes left. Jake Ross’ basket was the clincher.
In girls’ play, East (6-15; 1-8) edged HHS (7-14; 1-8) by one point at home on Jan. 21, for its sole M6 triumph thus far. The rematch was Tuesday at HHS. The victor escapes the M6 cellar. Ahead of that regular season closer, the Lady Cats’ lone M6 win was 50-46 over third-place Brevard. Franklin and Pisgah lead the M6, at 7-2.
Lady Cats beat West by 13 and 14 points. They also swept North — winning by one, then eight points amidst an early three-game win streak.
North Henderson and West Henderson are in the 3A Western Mountain Athletic Conference. North (10-12; 5-9 WMAC) and West (7-12; 4-9) males are in a logjam with 4-9 squads Asheville and Erwin, in trying to qualify for playoffs. Enka (3-11) is in last. Reynolds (12-2) and Roberson (11-3) lead among WMAC males. TCR beat North 72-56 on Friday.
North and West split, each winning in the rival’s gym — North by four then West by one on Feb. 4.
Knights won three of their first four games. They won 56-53 at East on Nov. 19, then beat the Eagles again — by 49-45 at home. North demolished Robbinsville 73-29, and Enka 98-75 a month ago. NHHS males swept Asheville with close wins by three and two points, beat Tuscola by ten, and Pisgah by six. North played at Erwin Tuesday.
The Knights host Enka Friday, on Valentine’s Day. West plays Friday, at Asheville at 8 p.m., ahead of the WMAC tourney.
The Falcons edged the Knights by one at 75-74, on Feb. 4. West swept Erwin by 18 (away) and 10 points. The Falcons beat Owen by 24 and 16, North Buncombe by 12 on the road, and McDowell by ten.
North Lady Knights (8-14 overall) are sixth among WMAC female squads at 5-9, a game ahead of Tuscola. Asheville and Enka are 12-1.
West (2-16, 1-11) enters the final week just ahead of Roberson (1-13), in avoiding the basement. The teams split; TCR won in OT, while West won by 11 on Jan. 24. Lady Falcons beat East 52-46 on Dec. 12.
Lady Knights swept two local teams. They thumped West by 14 on Feb. 4, and won 74-67 in OT at West Jan. 3. North beat East by 15 then 16 points, and Tuscola by six.
North swept TCR, winning by five in Skyland Feb. 7. North played at Erwin at Tuesday. Lady Knights host Enka tonight/Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Lady Falcons are at Asheville Friday.
Bryson Steps Aside
The eight local head coaches are Marvin Featherstone (HHS Bearcats), Kirron Ward (Lady Bearcats), Marquintus Jones (East Eagles), John Johnston (East Lady Eagles), Justin Parris (North Knights), Zach Wilkins (NHHS Lady Knights), Rusty Ward (West Falcons), and Chris Garner (Lady Falcons).
Jones comes to East from Limestone College. He exudes poise and confidence.
Rusty Ward, who was an assistant coach, has filled in since Joey Bryson stepped aside as Falcons head coach Jan. 23. Bryson cited stress, as an underlining reason for leaving. He was in his fourth year with his alma mater, and has coached for 20 years.
His decision came two weeks after he was suspended by school administrators for two games, for what they termed “conduct unbecoming” of West athletics. Days earlier, Coach Bryson was seen yelling at officials right after a game.
The Bryson family has dealt with grief and stress for two and a half years, since the death of Joey’s father. The murder trial has been repeatedly postponed, at the defense’s request.
Thomas Bryson of Mills River, then age 68, was found dead in Arden in July of 2017. Phillip Michael Stroup II’s charges include first-degree murder, kidnapping, and possession of a firearm by a felon.
Assistant Coach Rusty Ward is coaching varsity Falcons. Joey’s son Ben Bryson, a 6-3 senior point-post star, is on the verge of supplanting his father as the all-time leading Falcon hoops scorer.
Local coaches have touted their teams’ ingredients, and intangible gains such as resilience, persistence, and focused performance under pressure.
“I’ve got a good group,” Coach Wilkins told The Tribune. “Injuries have hurt us. But we fight hard” game after game.