When Kestrel Heights boys basketball coach Lenell Wallace looks back over his Hawks’ accomplishments, playing for the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A championship on Saturday is where he thought they might be at the beginning of season.
“I am proud that they are reaching their goals,” Wallace said. “The goals were set early and they were specific goals. Anytime you see them reach their goals, something they really wanted, it’s a very dear thing.”
Kestrel Heights is making this season one to remember, especially since it may be the last one at the school for the foreseeable future. Kestrel Heights is one denied appeal away from losing its high school program because of academic irregularities unrelated to the athletic department.
Wallace has done his best to insulate his players from the swirling controversy that has enveloped the school. He’s used the gym as a sanctuary for his players, and they’ve responded.
The Hawks have always been in the mix in the North Central Athletic Conference and this year they finally broke through the barriers that previously held them back. They buzzed through their conference regular-season slate without a loss, winning all 18 games.
“I’ve always felt the conference was good, especially the top part of the conference,” Wallace said. “It’s usually been us, Voyager and Roxboro. Last year River Mill made a run, and they it again this year. The conference has always given us a challenge each and every night.”
They also mixed in a few high-level nonconference games with an eye toward the playoffs when the level of competition increases.
“Our goal with scheduling was to play in a Christmas tournament,” Wallace said. “But we got only two of the three games we were promised. It actually gave us an opportunity to add a game against Rocky Mount Prep in January. That was a good test for us. We also played East Wake, a 4A team, which was another good challenge for us.”
Kestrel Heights reeled off 26 wins to start the season. That run also included a pair of wins over defending 1A state champion and rival Voyager Academy. Their only setback came in the NCAC tournament finals when the Hawks fell to Voyager 90-82 in overtime.
That loss has proved valuable Wallace said. Since then, Kestrel Heights has returned to its winning ways.
“If there was a game to lose, that was the last one,” Wallace said. “I talked to the team about the one loss we had. I told them ‘We lost a game. So if nothing else, you know what it is like to lose. You know how you lost that game. You know why you lost that game. If you didn’t learn from it, you may be doomed to repeat it.’ But I think we did learn from it. We’ve gotten better from it. I think we’ve refocused.”
Kestrel Heights (31-1) has won all five of its games in the playoffs and there is one more to go. The Hawks take on Lincoln Charter (29-4) at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill on Saturday (2:30 p.m.).