By Jacob Hancock
It’s the fourth quarter. It’s the ninth inning. Two-minute warning. Stoppage time. The game is on the line. If you love sports, you live for these moments. How do coaches handle these situations? How do they prepare their players for these, the most intense moments, on and off the field? There’s no right answer. No two coaches operate the same way, and there’s no real blueprint for success. What follows are three success stories from three coaches that I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know during my life.
“Born with a whistle in my mouth…”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more successful high school basketball coach than Billy Anderson, who runs the show at East Carteret High School in Beaufort, N.C.
With Anderson at the helm, the Mariners have won seven consecutive 1A Coastal Plains Conference championships – perhaps one of the most powerful conferences in the state at the 1A level. Rival team Pamlico County High School gives East Carteret a good game every year. Jones Senior High School is on the rise with new head coach Tod Morgan, who played JV basketball at UNC and has coached at several successful high schools in the state. North Side High School in Pinetown joined the conference in the 2013-2014 season, and were led for two seasons by Bam Adebayo, who played for the University of Kentucky this past season and will enter the NBA Draft after playing just one year in college. Anderson also makes it a point to schedule tough teams in non-conference play, often scheduling games against schools that have success at the 2A, 3A and 4A levels.
“I believe that to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” Anderson said. “I want my guys to be the best, and you don’t get that by playing weaker teams. I try to use some of those games in December as a measuring stick – see where we are in comparison to where we want to be and what we need to work on to get there.”
Mariner fans enjoyed a four-year stretch in which the team competed at the Eastern Regionals in Fayetteville each season. They also made it to the state championship in back-to-back seasons in 2014 and 2015. The team went undefeated in 2014 before losing in the final game to perennial powerhouse Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy. The Mariners, led by a trio of the most successful seniors in program history, got redemption over Winston-Salem and won the title in 2015.
“The support that the community showed us during that stretch was incredible,” Anderson said. “It hasn’t quite been the same since, which is understandable because that group was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of group. I consider myself lucky to have coached them.”
Anderson graduated from High Point University in 2000, and promptly started his coaching career as an assistant on his cousin’s staff at West Caldwell High School. He comes from a long line of coaches in his family and said he always knew he wanted to coach.
“I was practically born with a whistle in my mouth and a clipboard in my hand,” Anderson said.
Watching Anderson on the sidelines is pure entertainment – almost as entertaining as watching the team play. Every year you can count on high-octane offense from the Mariners. Anderson demands that each of his players puts his foot on the gas to get out in transition. Anderson is animated and emotional during games, pacing the sideline with his sucker in his mouth.
“It’s usually a cherry Dum Dum,” Anderson said. “It keeps me calm – sort of.”
Anderson has coached teams where the tallest player was (generously) listed at 6’2”. He’s had groups that can light it up from beyond the arc, and groups that “couldn’t throw it in the ocean from the shore.” Though he always wants his team playing at a blistering pace, he says it’s important to make slight adjustments when necessary.
“You have to have an idea of what your kids can do,” Anderson said. “Figure out what they do best, and then go from there.”
Asked about the secret to his success at East Carteret, Anderson said the answer was simply getting the kids in the gym.
“When I got here, we had some good athletes,” Anderson said. “But they weren’t in the gym every day. I started challenging them. Our guys now are gym rats. I have guys now that ask if they can come into the gym during lunch to get up shots. Now, our guys are all playing AAU during the summer and getting better year-round. Because we’ve had success, it means something to play for East Carteret, and I think guys want to live up to that.”
Anderson can be very demanding of his players, but the respect they have for him is clear. Former players are spotted at home games, and they stay after the game to see their old coach.
“That’s my favorite part of coaching,” Anderson said. “Building relationships with these guys, and seeing them grow up and become good men. It means a lot that so many of them still come back and support us. Some of them will even come around and play pickup with our guys during the summer, which is a great opportunity for the young guys to play against quality competition.”
Anderson said the toughest part about his job is having to make cuts and trying to find playing time for everybody.
“We really have a great talent pool here,” Anderson said. “There’s so many good athletes, and so many good kids. But you can’t run a program with 40 kids on your JV team.”
That’s not an exaggeration by Anderson. I tried out my sophomore year of high school, along with more than 40 of my fellow classmates. I was the last person to be cut. But Anderson encouraged me to come try out the next season, and even though I elected not to because of a heavy academic workload, I appreciated the interest that he showed in me – someone who didn’t even make the team.
“If you make the effort, and you genuinely take interest in their lives, they’re going to respond,” Anderson said. “They’re going to trust you, and that’s when you get the best out of them.”
“I was speaking a foreign language…”
When Antonio Diaz first came to East Carteret High School from Cordoba, Spain, as part of a teacher-transfer program, it had what could be called a soccer team. It had had some marginal success, winning a couple of playoff games in the 1990s, but was a complete mess in 2005.
“There just wasn’t a very good soccer presence in the area,” Diaz said. “We had guys who didn’t even play in middle school coming into high school.”
My brother was one of those guys. A freshman, he had played growing up and was offered a spot on a Classic League team in Cape Carteret that played year-round. But the traveling was going to be expensive (a 40-minute drive to practice every day), and he didn’t want to give up baseball. When he got to middle school, there weren’t enough people who wanted to play, and they couldn’t field a team.
“I knew that if I was ever going to turn the program around, I had to improve the development in the middle schools,” Diaz said.
Diaz met with members of the local parks and recreation services to encourage them start classic teams in Beaufort that would travel. This happened as I was coming up, and even though I did not play, a classic team was established and many of my friends joined. By the time I was in middle school, we had plenty of players to field a team.
“The difference that made, it was incredible,” Diaz said. “The group your freshman year was probably the most talented group in program history, and the group the next year was even better.”
The team only won four games my freshman year, but we improved at the end of the season and were competitive in a conference with Dixon High School and South West Onslow High School, two of the best 1A teams in the state. Diaz blamed himself for the early season struggles.
“I was a little hesitant to play some of the freshman at the beginning of the season,” Diaz said. “I didn’t want the older players to feel like they were being tossed to the side.”
The next year, the team made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1995, and the year after that we won a playoff game. The next season, conference alignments were adjusted, and Dixon and Southwest Onslow moved up to 2A and were replaced by North Side High School, South Side High School, and Bear Grass Charter School – all three much weaker teams. The program seemed to be peaking at the perfect time.
“Fans were starting to take notice,” Diaz said. “I think everyone could tell that big things were coming.”
The team had some unfortunate injuries early on. I sprained my ankle two days before the season opener against 3A county rival West Carteret, our star freshman sprained his the next day, and two senior would-be starters were already lost for the season.
“That was a very trying period,” Diaz said. “You really hate to see good kids out with injuries. You want them to get back out there as soon as they can, but safety is the top priority. You have to keep them motivated and make sure they understand that you have their best interest in mind. You also have to keep players on the bench mentally prepared, because they may have to replace someone at any time.”
But the team overcame those early season struggles and captured the first conference championship in program history. The team earned two first-round home playoff games before losing an unlucky draw in the third round. The next season they made it to the fourth round, losing to eventual state champion Wallace Rose Hill High School. East Carteret has now won four consecutive conference championships.
“The difference from where the program started and where it is now is night and day,” Diaz said. “It’s truly my proudest accomplishment.”
Before Diaz came to town, you might see students walking the halls wearing the jerseys of professional basketball or football athletes, but never soccer. Now, it’s not farfetched to find a student sporting a Messi or Ronaldo kit.
“The culture here has completely changed,” Diaz said. “I feel like when I came here, I was speaking a foreign language, and it wasn’t Spanish – it was soccer.”
Students love Diaz, and many opt to take his Latin class to fulfill the foreign language requirement instead of the more traditional option of Spanish. Everyone loves to listen to him talk – the difference in his voice inflection, the way he rolls his R’s, the way he pronounces “mayonnaise” (maYO-naise!). He’s a very easy-going man and is always looking for ways to make his students and players smile.
“I think it’s important to remember that soccer is just a game,” Diaz said. “It’s supposed to be fun.”
I can’t remember one day of high school in which Diaz didn’t make an effort to have a conversation with me. Whether it was in the hallway between classes, in the cafeteria during lunch or in the middle of Latin class while we worked on projects, I’m almost certain that Diaz spoke to me every single day of my high school career.
“You have to get to know each of your players,” Diaz said. “You have to figure out what they’re like, what they’re good at – both skill-wise and attitude-wise – and you have figure out how to make all of the different personalities blend into one cohesive team.”
“It takes a lot of patience…”
When Jason Salter was growing up, he never thought that he’d become a baseball coach.
“It had never even crossed my mind,” Salter said. “I don’t think anyone else who knew me would have expected it either. I was a bit of a troublemaker.”
Salter was a talented baseball player. He had the opportunity to play at UNC-Chapel Hill, but he didn’t even make it to the spring semester before flunking out.
“That was a bigtime reality check,” Salter said. “I had always been able to rely on being smart enough, not having to study. Add that with all the partying, I just wasn’t mature enough. I knew I had to make a change in my life.”
After taking some time off, Salter enrolled at UNCW a changed man. He kept his grades up and started working as an assistant at Roland-Grise Middle School in Wilmington.
“That was a good experience,” Salter said. “It made me realize that I wanted to get involved in coaching.”
After graduation, Salter spent several years working as an assistant at North Brunswick High School, a perennial power in Eastern North Carolina.
“I really learned a lot from my time there,” Salter said. “The coaching staff was so professional, and they expected the same from the players. The baseball culture there is incredible.”
In 2008, Salter became the junior varsity baseball coach at East Carteret High School. He immediately saw a difference in the culture between the two programs.
“The guys running the varsity team really didn’t have a clue of what they were doing,” Salter said. “I really didn’t want them telling my JV players what to do. It was a circus.”
Shortly before the 2010 season, East Carteret decided to promote Salter to varsity head coach. For the first several weeks of the season, he focused his practices on conditioning. Some people joked that Salter was more of a track coach than a baseball coach.
“Those kids simply weren’t in shape,” Salter said. “I didn’t have a chance to work with them in the offseason, and they hadn’t been putting in the work on their own.”
Salter struggled control his temper at times. He’s had to complete mandatory anger management classes on multiple occasions.
“It takes a lot of patience, which was something I didn’t always have when I first became a head coach,” Salter said. “It’s hard when you’re trying to change a culture. You feel like you want more for your kids than they want for themselves. I came in expecting them to play like North Brunswick, but I quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen.”
Implementing the offseason training made a big difference. The team hadn’t been in the playoffs since 2006 and hadn’t won a playoff game since 2002. In his first season, the Mariners made it to the third round of the state playoffs. East Carteret has made the playoffs every season under Salter. In 2013, the team captured its first conference championship in decades. Since then, the Mariners have won four consecutive conference championships. Salter saw his greatest success in his last season in 2016, in which the team made it to the Regional Final for the first time since 1984.
But just as his program was peaking, Salter decided to step down.
“I needed to spend more time with my family,” Salter said. “Being a high school coach is a huge time commitment. I loved doing it, but I felt that it was reaching a point where I couldn’t be fully committed to the program and my own children, and that’s not fair to either group of kids.”
Salter now helps coach his daughters’ softball team. He said he loves spending time with her, but the transition from high school baseball to middle school softball has been less than smooth.
“You can’t treat them the same,” Salter said. “With the high school boys, I could pretty well assume they knew the fundamentals. I have to be more patient with the girls. I do O.K. with my own daughters, but I struggle with other people’s kids. I always practiced tough love, but you can’t do that unless your players understand that it’s love. I think I’m still trying to figure out how to do that with a different kind of group.”
All three coaches credited their success to their ability to develop a winning culture. Whether that’s through challenging their players, harping on the tactics or showing tough love, creating the expectation for your team to win is crucial before the team can actually tally W’s. It’s also important to show a special interest in each of your players to develop a sense of trust, so that, whatever your message is, they will be willing to buy in to it.
Edited by Jordan Wilkie