Cary’s boys basketball team enters the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A East final with the hopes of a school that is among the area’s most steeped in athletics tradition.
But what has intensified that support, and unified a student body along the way, has been the timing. In the last decade, Cary’s athletic programs have struggled to keep pace with its rivals in many sports.
The boys basketball team’s conference title gave the Imps 25 conference championships in an 10-and-a-half year period across 21 sports. Cary has had more success in sports with individual components. Wrestling, track and field and cross country accounted for 19 of the 25.
Cary athletics director Mike Dunphy said it’s been “hard for our school to rally around a kid” and Cary’s supporters were “craving success for a team.”
Imps fans got their wish this year. The team is 30-1, starting the season with a 26 straight wins.
A win against Garner, at noon Saturday in Fayetteville’s Crown Coliseum, would send the school back to the state championship for the first time since winning it all in 1996.
“The basketball team has done something magical this year,” co-Gang Green leader Timmy Bullard said. “They simply made (us) proud to be an Imp.”
The lean years
The senior class had only seen five conference champions before the boys basketball team took the crown.
“(Having) 2,400 kids with the demographics we have at our school, we have a lot of underprivileged families and single-family kids,” Dunphy said. “It’s tough for all those families to support their kids in the way they need to be supported outside of high school athletics, club scenes and whatnot.”
Cary’s free and reduced lunch rate – an indicator of athletic success in a number of sports according to a 2015 News & Observer study – went from 24.8 percent just nine years ago to 35.3 last year (a 43.3 percent increase). Sports like tennis are often introducing players to the sport for the first time.
Cary volleyball coach Phillip Goodloe noted the change at the school, and how it differs from others in the mostly-affluent town, after a game in September. The Imps won the 2007 conference volleyball title but are 3-36 in the last two seasons.
“The girls are great, and they try their best, but they’re not $7,000-a-year club players like you have on the outskirts of Cary now,” Goodloe said. “Twelve years in this, I had nine years of dominant teams and then … the shift of power.”
Rallying the school
A year ago, Cary’s boys basketball team shared a glimpse of what could fulfill the community’s craving for a team to rally behind when it upset eventual conference champion Apex 84-71 late in the season. Ten days later was senior night, but there were no seniors.
Cary brought back the entire roster and carried its momentum into the following season, but beyond anyone’s expectations. It won its first conference title since 1999. The squad’s 30 wins matches their total from the previous two years combined.
“For us to have the success we’re having this year is fantastic,” Dunphy said. “To have that one team that all of a sudden especially in a sport like basketball or football, where those are the pulse of your school, those are the games that kids get excited about.”
The student section at Charlie Adams Gymnasium – the “Gang Green” seemed to double in size.
“Kids I don’t even know will stop us in the hallway all excited and ask what time the game is, who we’re playing and what the theme is,” said Whitney Rush, co-leader of Gang Green. “People get to games at 4 p.m. when the tipoff isn’t until 7 p.m.”
The crowd played a crucial role in spurring the Imps’ 19-point comeback against New Hanover in the NCHSAA quarterfinals.
“Show me a better high school environment than the Imp Dome right there. Nobody went home or left their seats when we were down (19),” coach Allan Gustafson said. “I’m so happy for the student body. The community support has been tremendous.”
The hope, beyond Saturday’s game, is that the rest of the school’s programs get a lift, or some inspiration, from the basketball team’s breakthrough.
“Students come to the basketball games and realize how awesome ‘The’ Cary High School is and want to support other teams too,” Rush said.
“What it’s doing is, it gives confidence to the other athletic programs too,” Gustafson said. “The other sports teams are seeing the success and that – I don’t want to say a domino effect – but certainly gives them confidence that they can be successful, too.”
J. Mike Blake contributed.