What the Carolina Day girls basketball program has achieved is unprecedented in the history of Western North Carolina high school athletics.
The Wildcats under coach Joe Carrington have won seven straight state N.C. High School Independent Schools Athletic Association titles, every year since the first championship in 2011.
The seventh, which came last season, broke a tie with the Hayesville girls, who won six consecutive state 1A NCHSAA titles in basketball (1988-93).
In Carrington’s ninth year at the private school in south Asheville, Carolina Day has posted a 210-26 record (.889). The only year he didn’t win a title was his first at the school, when his 23-1 team lost in the semifinal round after a key player went down with an injury.
“The main component (to the incredible record and success) is the players. We’ve been blessed with a lot of fantastic players at this school and we’ve had great support from the school,” said Carrington, who also coached at Rosman (128-41 in six years) and Mountain Heritage (19-28 in two seasons).
Senior Zaria Joyner, in her third year with the program, credits her coach with the great run.
“He pushes us. He expects the very best out of us every day, but he’s also there for us,” she said. “When he expects 100 percent from us all the time, that carries over into the games.”
This year’s team, playing a tougher schedule, is 13-5. The five losses are the second most in Carrington’s tenure (the 2014-15 squad finished 22-6).
But despite the early defeats, Carrington and his players believe eight straight is possible.
“We don’t have as much wiggle room as in the past and we will have to play really well, but this team is certainly capable,” Carrington said.
“We’ve played a really tough schedule, probably the toughest schedule we’ve ever played. We’ve played several teams ranked in the top 25 (in the country), including the No.1 team in the country (Hamilton Heights in Chattanooga, a 68-25 loss) and we’ve got several more nationally ranked teams to play.
“We’re going to find out if this is the way to prepare.”
The players and coach are proud of the streak and work hard to keep it going, but it is not the only thing they worry about.
“It’s important, but it isn’t all consuming,” said Carrington. “We want to play well, and the kids have bought in and play hard.”
“The streak is an integral part of what we do,” said Joyner. “A legacy has been built, and we don’t want to be the team that ends it.
“We realize we are part of something bigger than just ourselves.”
Sophomore Annabelle Schultz from Asheville has played on the Carolina Day team for four years. She said the streak is important to maintain the school’s legacy.
“It’s an honor to be part of it,” she said. “We know if we play hard, good things will happen because they have happened in the past when we did that.”
And even more impressive that the state championship streak is the run of Wildcats who have gone on to play in college.
Carrington says every kid from his program over nine years that wanted to play after high school has done so.
“We’ve probably had 25-35 kids in nine years. We’ve been blessed and fortunate to place all those kids. We try to play a schedule where our players can be seen and contact schools for them.”
And it’s not just basketball players.
“We’ve had kids who didn’t go on to play in college. A player who is going to be a lawyer told me she was able to handle the rush process of a sorority because of what she learned from us,” Carrington said.
“Another went to West Point as a field hockey player, and says the work ethic she got from here is what helped her get through that.”
Carrington and Carolina Day have benefitted from his long association with the WNC Royals, a travel team program that has been successful for decades.
It has worked both ways – players who grow up with the Royals end up on the Wildcats’ roster and players already enrolled at the school decide they want to play for the Royals.
“I’m not quite as involved as I used to be, but it’s certainly helped,” he said.
“I’ve played with Joe since the third grade, pretty much my whole life,” said Schultz. “He pushes you to be the best on and off the court and he sets you up to succeed.”
Joyner is from Marion and has played with the Royals since 5th grade. She said it was a natural move for her to begin playing for Carrington at Carolina Day three years ago.
“For me, it was because my friends from travel ball were playing there,” she said. “I looked at Carolina Day as a place I could do well with basketball and academics.”