NCCU seeks to protect home turf

Eagles face Howard, three former Hillside player
Jan. 20, 2013 @ 08:17 PM

Never mind bragging rights, access on the recruiting trail is up for grabs tonight when N.C. Central hosts Howard (5:30 p.m., nccueaglepride.com) in women's basketball.

The Eagles haven’t won a game all season, but a victory this evening could be a big assist for first-year NCCU coach Vanessa Taylor, looking for entry points into the lanes leading to some local talent.

Howard already has a bead on that – the Lady Bison being NCCU’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference adversary all the way in Washington, D.C., notwithstanding.

The roster for the Bison (10-7, 4-1 MEAC) includes three young ladies who played for Ovester Grays at Hillside High School.

 “In getting Jerrelle Gorham, Tamoria Holmes and Julee O’Neal, it has definitely been one of the reasons we’ve been able to turn this program around,” Howard coach Niki Reid Geckeler said. 

Howard was 4-26 the season before Geckeler arrived as head coach for the 2008-09 campaign. The Bison went 9-22 the next season and then 16-14 after the Hillside girls joined the squad. After a 16-18 run in 2010-11, Howard last season was 24-9.

Grays’ girls – there’s just something about them, Geckeler said.

“Just that ‘it’ factor,” Geckeler said. “They hate to lose more than they love to win.”

The Eagles (0-16, 0-3 MEAC) could use some of whatever that ‘it’ is, coming off a 3-27 season that resulted in Joli Robinson not having her coaching contract renewed.

So along came Taylor, who was hired by NCCU in April and, after unpacking her bags, made a beeline to Hillside. Grays said he’s sent 57 players from Hillside to college basketball. But not one has gone to NCCU, which is literally right down the road on Fayetteville Street less than two miles away.

The last Hillside player who went straight to NCCU and played basketball was Kisha Smith, who suited up for the1999-2000 version of the Eagles after redshirting the prior season.

Former Jordan High School basketball player Danielle DeBerry is the most recent student-athlete from Durham to play at NCCU, although she transferred to another school in 2010 after two seasons.

Marissa Parker was one of Grays’ girls. She played at NCCU during the 2004-05 season after transferring from Belmont Abbey College, near Charlotte.

Since 1993, six other student-athletes from high schools in Durham have played for the Lady Eagles. Taylor wants to do better than that, recognizing the built-in fan base that comes along with local recruits.

The closest tie to the Bull City in the Lady Eagles’ program is Lakisha Evans, a Johnson C. Smith transfer who played at East Chapel Hill High. Injuries have kept her out of the lineup this season.

Jordan girls’ basketball coach Ty Cox said one of the first things on Taylor’s to-do list when she got the NCCU job was to reach out to his daughter, Jordan senior Bayley Coleman-Cox. Taylor showed her plenty of love, having someone from the Eagles’ staff watch her play Amateur Athletic Union ball over the summer in Charlotte, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, Cox said.

“Bayley liked them,” Cox said about NCCU’s coaches.

But Coleman-Cox liked the idea of getting out of town for college a little bit more. She has signed to play at Hampton in Virginia.

Cox, an NCCU grad – his wife is an administrator at NCCU -- said Taylor made a good push toward landing his daughter.

“It wasn’t without trying,” Cox said. “I think that Coach Taylor is going to do very well.”

Cox has developed no shortage of talent both at Jordan and with his Carolina All-Stars AAU team, which once included one of Grays’ girls, Hillside senior Jordyn Smith.

Smith likely will be in NCCU’s McDougald-McLendon Gymnasium tonight, Grays said.

She has committed to play at Howard.

In other words, Geckeler more or less has dibs on the Hillside pipeline, although she understands that Taylor is poised to tap it, too.

“I hope not,” Geckeler quipped. “But on the flip side, Vanessa is a tremendous coach. She’s got a great history, a great résumé of being able to produce championship programs, so there’s no doubt that I think we’ll be bumping heads quite a bit in that area with recruiting. But right now, we’ve been fortunate enough to get these three before Vanessa got there, and then we’re fortunate enough to have Jordyn coming in next year, as well.”

Holmes, O’Neal and Gorham arrived at Howard in 2009, Geckeler’s second season as head coach of the Lady Bison. Grays said that year he sent eight student-athletes to Division I schools, and Howard was a beneficiary because of a prior coaching relationship he had with Geckeler when she was an assistant coach at Georgetown.

The Hillside Three at Howard were the first of Grays’ girls to play for the Bison, and it’s actually one of Geckeler’s assistants who deserves the credit for knowing what was going on in Durham.

Grays has been at Hillside 15 years and never has missed the state playoffs, winning 11 league titles, five in the 4-A PAC-6 and six when the Hornets were in the 3-A Five County Conference.

That sort of success mixed with solid performances in the classroom is why college coaches keep stirring the Hornets’ nest, Grays said.

"It does create a pipeline, if you want to call it that," Grays said.

Taylor wants in on it.

“Certainly with a program of his stature, you’ve got to try to get some of those kids,” Taylor said. “They’re champions, and we want champions.”

One hurdle Taylor must deal with is Durham players like Coleman-Cox and Smith wanting to continue their careers away from here.

"You know how kids are, man. They think getting away is a little bit of elbow room from Mom and Dad, and Central being right down the street, it seems like a local thing for them," Grays said. "They don't realize that once they get in school that college life is still away from home."

Taylor previously coached at Johnson C. Smith, where she became the school’s most successful women’s basketball coach. Smith said there in Charlotte she had to deal with local high school players wanting to play college ball outside of the Queen City.

“You just have to find the ones that are OK with being a hometown hero,” Taylor said.

“Coach Taylor’s philosophy when she met with us was she was going to exhaust all options with local players first, and then branch outward,” Cox said.

Like Cox and Grays, first-year Southern High School girls’ basketball coach Monique Fearrington is an NCCU alum, and Taylor said she’ll try to leverage those relationships to bolster the Eagles, who haven’t had a winning season since the 2006-07 campaign.

Her assistant coaches also have ties to the area.

NCCU assistant coach Ronnie Enoch is from Burlington and knows the lay of the land, Taylor said. NCCU assistant coach Ed Geth, who was on the North Carolina basketball team that won the national title in 1993, has worked closely in basketball settings with Grays.

"It's a relationship thing,” Grays said. “Coach Taylor has really started to establish a relationship with us and our program, being very visible. It wouldn't surprise me if in the next couple of years she lands a couple of kids at Central. They have great academics, a good program.

"I'm hoping Central gets some, because they're hometown. I like to see our kids do well locally, too, and I think it's just a matter of one doing it. Sometimes in this business, when one of our local kids goes somewhere and does well, then there's another kid watching and will say, ‘I'm going to do that, too.’”