After just two years of existence, Seaforth will have a new face standing on the sideline during the upcoming basketball season.
This offseason, Seaforth hired Leo Brunelli to take over as the varsity boys head basketball coach following the departure of former head coach Jarod Stevenson.
Before taking the job at Seaforth, Brunelli spent time head coaching at North Stanly, Bedford (Pennsylvania), Oxford Prep and most famously, J.F. Webb, where he won the 2012-13 NCHSAA 3A state title and coached former UNC forward Isaiah Hicks.
Looking at the successes in his coaching past, especially at J.F. Webb, one can say that Brunelli leaves a big footprint wherever he goes. At Seaforth, however, he still has some big shoes to fill.
Seaforth is coming off its best varsity season yet, going 18-9 overall and 11-1 in conference play. The Hawks made it to the second round of the state playoffs, and over the summer, Jarin Stevenson, the 2023 North Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year, reclassified and joined the Alabama Crimson Tide the following fall.
Not only does Brunelli have to find his own success with the young program, he now has to do so without one of the key players that built the initial foundation.
“Most coaches, whenever they take over a program, they come into tough situations,” Brunelli said. “I’m taking over a program that has had a Gatorade Player of the Year in the state and had great players along with him. Now, the biggest thing for us is to take a look at all those opportunities that have been presented to us and go out and compete.”
Fortunately for Brunelli, the program’s returning players seem ready to prove that their success doesn’t rely on one player.
During Saturday’s Chatham County Mid-Carolina 1A/2A media day, senior Kooper Jones, who averaged nine points and six rebounds last season, said the idea of showing what they can do post-Stevenson actually brings them together.
“In the past, everybody just thinks that Seaforth is the Jarin Stevenson show,” Jones said. “I think since he’s gone, everybody is doubting us, and we’ve all come together to show that we’re not just Jarin’s teammates.”
Although Seaforth’s current players may be able to find success on their own, it’s not easy to just replace a talent like Stevenson, who had the size, athleticism and skill that made him a threat at almost all times. It especially won’t be easy filling his absence with Seaforth now having to face Northwood’s Drake Powell, who is just as talented if not a better prospect than Stevenson, at least twice a year.
With all four Chatham County Schools programs in the same conference for the first time, the path to a conference title and a good-playoff seed may not be as easy for Brunelli’s squad as it’s been in the past.
Prior to this season, Seaforth only played its intra-county rival once in its inaugural season, losing to the Chargers, 42-72.
In the case of Northwood and Seaforth, the two teams will be playing against players they’ve grown up with or are friends with, considering Seaforth opened to alleviate Northwood’s growing student population.
Already coined the “Battle of Pittsboro” for football, that rivalry will have huge stakes for Brunelli and his team. But with an extensive coaching history like he has, Brunelli is no stranger to high-pressure games.
“I was blessed to be at some schools, especially Granville County, to have that atmosphere in that arena,” Brunelli said. “I knew from my time there when we came to Northwood that if it was a Friday night, it was going to be crazy. And, we were coming from an hour away. To have that built in and fill these gyms up again to capacity with that atmosphere, (it) makes high school basketball so special.”
Other than the questions that lie ahead of him, Brunelli seems to have started his stint with the Hawks on the right foot, receiving praise from his players before the season tips off.
Senior Tyshawn Davenport said he’s glad to have Brunelli on board, and Jones said it’s “encouraging” to have someone who has experienced success before.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Jones said. “You just have to buy into his system, and he’ll lead the way.”