Basketball at Piedmont High School has undergone a culture shift in the last two years.
Piedmont boys basketball was mediocre at best before coach Rudi Heath took matters into his own hands when he accepted the coaching position two seasons ago. The Panthers went 38-82 from 2006-2012 and operated largely as a means for athletes to keep in shape for baseball or football. They weren’t winning games, fans stayed home instead of coming out on Friday nights and it soon became a waiting game for spring and baseball season, where the Panthers could regain their athletic reputation.
But things have changed under Heath, who served as the athletics director at West Stanly after 13 seasons coaching the boys basketball team and 16 seasons coaching at North Stanly, where he lead the Comets to a 2A state championship appearance in the late 1990s. But when the opportunity to get back into coaching came up, he couldn’t resist.
And for the Panthers, it’s a good thing. Piedmont went 21-6 and 11-3 in the Rocky River conference last year in Heath’s first season as a Panther, finishing second in the conference and accumulating their best record in nearly a decade.
They’re 15-8 and 6-3 in Southern Carolinas conference play this year, resting again at a comfortable second place. And after trudging through several years of mediocre seasons, the Panthers are winning games and proving that, under Heath’s leadership, they’re no longer the Panthers of old.
Heath has help from a talented slew of seniors who witnessed the struggles of Piedmont basketball early on in their career and were a part of last year’s turnaround.
“Last year, we had an underdog card going for us because no one expected us to be any good,” said Tanner Stinger, the 5-foot-9 speedy senior guard who’s averaging 5.5 points and 3.5 rebounds for the Panthers. “No one thought we’d be good and we weren’t getting any credit at all, so going from the bottom and rising to the top was really exciting for us and something we knew we could work toward.”
The new chapter in Piedmont basketball that began last year has continued this season, thanks largely to the experienced backcourt duo of Jack Gamble and Austin Harding. Gamble, the Panthers’ second-leading scorer, is averaging around 10 points per game while grabbing six rebounds and two assists while Harding is playing important minutes and putting up 8.4 points. Fellow seniors Eli Hyatt and Jaden Funderburk are both playing big minutes and adding depth and leadership to a team that’s looking to prove last year was the beginning of the new standard.
But their biggest threat is 6-foot-7 junior Cameron Tripp, who adds a bruising inside presence where he’s putting up 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Panthers and providing just the right amount of aggressiveness underneath the basket. With a slew of talented seniors and Tripp adding height, strength and a near-perfect shot, the Panthers have hit their stride at just the right time – right before playoffs.
“These seniors have grown together as leaders and individuals and having played together so long, they know how to play with each other and coach each other up to get the best out of each other,” Tripp said. “I think all of us coming together and being able to play as a team has allowed us to grow as the season wraps up. We’re bringing it together at the right time and that’s what we’ve been wanting to do.”
The Panthers looked a little inconsistent as conference play began, edging Marvin Ridge but falling to Sun Valley and then Cuthbertson – a team that’s 1-8 in conference play and last in the standings. But if anyone was starting to doubt the talent on the Panther team, they hushed uncertainties with arguably the biggest win in Union County on Feb. 4, when the Panthers beat an undefeated Weddington on the road, 55-52.
“When we played Weddington the first time, we were confident but we didn’t overcome,” Funderburk said. “We knew the second time on the road that we had to leave it all on the floor. Nobody expected us to beat them except for us. We were confident we could do it.”
“You’ve got to give (Heath) credit on that win,” Harding said. “You have to give Tanner and the ball handlers credit and the guys who hit their free throws at the end. We knew what we wanted to do coming in and we executed. We slowed the game down, we got them frustrated early and we pulled it out.”
Tripp had a big performance for the Panthers that night, with 21 points, nine rebounds, three steals and a block. Harding added 10 points and four rebounds while Gamble added six points to the effort as Piedmont handed the Warriors their first conference loss – a tough blow to a team that most predicted would go undefeated.
“I think it was a statement game for us,” Heath said. “Maybe not to everybody else, but it was for us. We proved ourselves. I’ve been telling these guys for the last two years that they’re as good as anybody around. We just have to believe that we are and play at that level and that’s what we did against (Weddington).”
The Panthers followed their signature win with two big wins over Anson. Now, the Panthers are more confident than ever as they close the season and enter the post season. And with seven seniors playing high school basketball for the last time, they’re focused on continuing to prove Piedmont basketball and the new tradition they’ve started isn’t a fluke.
“It’s been more of a football and baseball tradition here, but we can see that we’re starting to change that,” senior Brandon Crotts said. “The past two years, we’ve created a tradition and we don’t want that to end.”
And Heath is excited to be back on the court doing what he loves and helping spear the Panthers toward success.
“Piedmont is a perfect school for me,” he said. “I love the community. I love the atmosphere. I love the other coaches – it’s just fantastic. And that’s the same with these guys. They’ve worked hard for the success they’re starting to see. I’m all over their tail sometimes because I wish they’d run a little faster or jump a little higher but it’s turned out to be a great situation and a perfect school. It’s the community, it’s the family and this team is a great representation of that.”