Winston-Salem Prep basketball team defies odds by making run to state semifinals

The Phoenix finished the year 25-3 and had a 24-game win streak along the way and even won the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Bracket of the Frank Spencer Holiday Classic, all under the leadership of first-year head coach Josh Pittman.

Winston-Salem Prep basketball team defies odds by making run to state semifinals
March 17
09:16 2022

The Winston-Salem Prep boys basketball team enjoyed a great season, making it all the way to the state semifinal game before losing to eventual state champion Hayesville, 72-66. There were not many people outside of the team that expected such a great year, but the Phoenix proved to everyone that they are a force once again to be reckoned with in the Triad.

The Phoenix finished the year 25-3 and had a 24-game win streak along the way and even won the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Bracket of the Frank Spencer Holiday Classic. For head coach Josh Pittman, this was almost a fairytale ending to his first year with Prep.  

“God blessed, we got it to 24 (wins) and ended up losing to an undefeated Hayesville team,” said Pittman about the win streak. “Our goal and our approach every day was to stack days and take it game by game and not look ahead.

“We set four short-term goals and we accomplished three of them, so that’s pretty good for a year. We just wanted to go game by game and practice by practice and get better every day. I knew if we put that work in, everything else would take care of itself.”

During the streak, Pittman continued to push his team to get better and not become complacent or too full of themselves.

“I honestly just tried to stay in the moment and tell the guys to stay humble and appreciate what God is doing and take it seriously. To just be appreciative of the people that talk to you and wish you good luck,” Pittman said of what he told his team to keep them grounded. “Not pushing my religion on them, but I try to tell them to start off with a ‘God bless’ when you are thanking somebody because without God, in my view, nothing is possible.

“When I reflected back on it Sunday, after we lost on Saturday, I was extremely proud of the guys, of the coaching staff, of the kids, of the school, of the students. We just seemed to all come together behind this team and push Winston-Salem Prep back to the forefront right there with the best teams in the city.”

Heading into the conference tournament, Pittman and his team knew if they won their tournament, they would have the No. 2 seed in the state playoffs, so they had a lot to play for.

“I knew that if we beat Bishop (McGuinness) I knew we locked up a two seed and I said we would be a tough out at home,” he said. “I knew that we lost one game to Mt. Tabor at the beginning of the year and all the other games, I think the closest might have been 11 points or something like that.  

“I knew being at home, we would be tough. And I knew getting through those first four at home would set us up to play for a regional final and that’s what the goal was.”

As the Phoenix made their way into the playoffs, Pittman continued to push the one game at a time narrative to his players.

“One of the things as a staff, we pride ourselves on being prepared,” said Pittman. “If we played Tuesday, the next morning they had the scouting report for the next game. The next day we were looking at film and we did that not just for the playoffs, but we did that all year long.

“They were accustomed to getting that player breakdown and getting the pluses and minuses of the other teams and I kept shoving that information down their throat. I would say it in practice, I would send it to them, I would say it pregame and I would say it right before the game. I just kept keeping them busy with information and goals and that’s just the way I learned how to do it from playing. I felt like that was the best way to do it and they responded well.”

The Phoenix had a hard time defeating Bessemer City in the fourth round of the state playoffs. The game went down to the final minutes with Prep winning 58-54 before facing off against the undefeated Yellowjackets in the semifinals.

“I knew Bessemer City was going to be a tough game. I knew from looking at the guard play when I looked at the film. I knew they were going to be good,” Pittman said. “Like I told them, every step now the teams get tougher.  When we looked at Hayesville, I knew they had two monsters; a guard and a big.  

“It was like, let’s pick our poison and try to take out the facilitator and the big played one of his best games all year. I still feel like to lose by six to them when they essentially had a home game when they moved it to Asheville.”

Pittman said he made sure to lift the spirits of his players following the loss in the playoffs. He reminded them to hold their heads high and they expected to be in position to play for the championship.

The Phoenix had some great senior leadership on their roster with Michael Jordan and Jay Penn leading the backcourt. Pittman had high praise for his two senior guards.

“When we are speaking of Jay, Jay came off the bench last year and was the leading scorer with about 15 a game,” Pittman said about Penn. “I asked him to be a senior leader, to be a facilitator, to run the team, to get everybody involved and to be a true point guard. At times I could tell he had some difficulties because if you are scoring before, you want to score. Once he settled into that role and really bought into leading and being a point guard, there’s nothing negative I can say about him.

“I love him, I think he is a wonderful kid, a heck of a player, and an undersized guard that plays big. He played some big minutes for me, made some big shots, made some key plays throughout the year and just developed as a true point guard for this team and that’s all I can ask for.”

Penn was excited for the role change heading into the season. He wanted to do what was best for the team and knew if they put it all together, the success would soon follow.

“I had great expectations and nobody thought we would do what we did. We made it further than what everybody thought,” said Penn. “My junior year I really didn’t play the one, but he (Pittman) asked me before the season, do I feel more comfortable playing the one or the two, so I feel like I changed my role this year to try and facilitate to help my teammates score more. Pittman and the coaches helped me out with changing that role for me.”

Penn echoed the sentiments of his coach, saying he and his teammates focused on the then and now instead of looking past any opponent. He says that helped them concentrate on the task at hand and kept the winning streak alive for so long. He feels they did well this year, but could have been better with them bringing home a state championship. He will miss his teammates most of all, he said.

When it comes to Jordan, Pittman says he was more proud of the strides Jordan made off the court than on it. Pittman says Jordan was more disciplined in the classroom and that translated to the basketball court.

“We had talks, we had arguments at times, but he saw that my goal was for him to be more mature and that will translate into a better season and once he got that, he began to understand his role, he began to understand that he can play the way he plays within our system,” said Pittman about Jordan. “He understood it wasn’t all about scoring.”

Jordan felt like he had a lot to prove coming into the season. Transferring into Prep from East Forsyth, he wanted to show what he was capable of outside of just scoring the basketball.

“A whole lot of people doubted us, and they didn’t think we were going to do anything,” said Jordan. “We just kept telling ourselves every day we have to work, work, work. Us winning the Frank Spencer shocked a lot of people because we were expected to lose in the first round to Parkland.

“We just kept motivating each other in practice and telling each other to work hard every day. Going into the playoffs, it didn’t matter who we played, we just wanted to win. Everybody kind of put the individual stuff to the side and we played together and that’s how we got as far as we did.”

Jordan feels that the team was kind of shell-shocked in their playoff game against Hayesville. The Phoenix hadn’t lost to a 1A team all season and the Yellowjackets put them on their heels, which Prep was not used to after such a long winning streak. He says their shots were not falling and by the time they regained their composure, it was a little too late.

Pittman says the Phoenix would not have had as successful a season without the contributions from Penn and Jordan. He says the most important factor was they also set up the team for better success for the future.

Pittman has six underclassmen and three starters returning for next season. He is eager for the dead period to end so he can begin his offseason program and get his players stronger in the weight room.

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Timothy Ramsey

Timothy Ramsey

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