WINTERVILLE, N.C. – Every time Day’Ron Sharpe walks into the Zaxby’s just off of South Memorial Drive in Winterville, North Carolina, without fail, the front desk employees blurt out “Kickin’ Chicken meal” before he can even get a chance to decide on whether he’s going to be a creature of habit.
“They already know,” Sharpe said. “That’s how it is here; it’s a small town and everyone knows everyone, mostly.”
Winterville sits roughly seven miles from the vivacious college town that is Greenville, North Carolina, home of the East Carolina Pirates, but it might as well be clear across the country.
“There’s not a whole lot to do, but it’s home,” Shykeim Phillips said. “It’s quiet here.”
The irony is that Sharpe, Phillips and the rest of Winterville’s high school basketball team – the South Central Falcons – are making a deafening noise on the national scene this season.
“We’re putting on for the town and we’re all homegrown so there’s more pride with us,” said Sharpe, a junior forward. “It feels great to be getting all of this attention nationally. Everyone around the city is supporting us and encouraging us. It’s a big thing around here.”
The Falcons debuted in the USA Today Super 25 at No. 23 on Dec. 31 after taking then No. 4 Ranney School (Tinton Falls, N.J.) down to the wire in the prestigious John Wall Holiday Invitational title game.
“That still bothers me that we didn’t win that one,” said Sharpe, a North Carolina commit who is averaging 16.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks a game. “We were up the whole game and fell at the end. That one hurt.”
It’s a familiar emotion for Sharpe and the Falcons the last two years, after putting together dominant regular seasons and falling on their way to the coveted state title.
Still, Phillips said that the he and his teammates don’t worry about history repeating itself for a third-straight season, despite the similarities.
“It’s something that motivates us,” said Phillips, a senior point guard who is averaging 17 points, 3.6 assists and 3.1 steals a game. “We’re not thinking that just because this season is going the way the last two seasons went that it will end like that. Honestly, this season isn’t like those seasons at all. We’re nationally ranked now, and we’ve never been ranked before.”
The Falcons check in at No. 6 overall in the latest Super 25 poll.
That status has added significant attention for the Falcons, especially on social media.
Phillips said he’s added 3,000 followers since the Falcons debuted in the Super 25, Sharpe has added 1,500.
South Central has also seen a 20 percent spike in ticket sales for home games this season.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” Phillips said. “I’m just trying to enjoy this time because I know it only comes around once, but the biggest thing is to keep working hard; that’s what got us here.”
That and locking up defensively.
In 2019, the Falcons’ average margin of victory is 38.4 points per game.
This season they’re only allowing opponents 41 points per game, they’re managing 5.5 blocks per game and swiping 12 steals per game.
“Defense is our foundation, there’s no doubt about it,” South Central coach Chris Cherry said. “We keep things basic in our defensive preparation, but we execute everything to perfection or we keep doing it until we do. There’s more praise for defense and everyone’s buying in. The guys are just a lot more mature this year.”
Sharpe added that another difference between this season and the last two is the urgency he feels with eight seniors on the roster. The Falcons have just two regular season games left before starting the playoffs. Their average margin of victory this season over their final two opponents is 27.5 points per game.
“We have to get it done this year,” Sharpe said. “We’ll have a chance next year, but this is the year we’ve got the best chance.”
If the Falcons were to go on and win the state title, they would have a chance at an even bigger prize –
The GEICO Nationals title, but the North Carolina High School Athletic Association does not allow its schools to participate in GEICO Nationals, which runs from April 4-6 in New York. The Falcons would have been a lock to earn a berth.
“That’s crazy,” Phillips said. “We’ve got to do something about that. Our confidence is really high this year and we know that we can play with any team in the country. Hopefully, we can make it happen, but before we can think about that we have to focus on winning states. We don’t want all of this to be for nothing. We want this to be the year it all comes together.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY