Northwood celebrates girls’ championship with ring ceremony

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Less than five months removed from its 70-52 win over Enka in the 3A state championship game, the 2022-23 Northwood girls basketball team convened for the final time Friday night in the Chargers’ home gym for a celebratory ring ceremony.

The state championship win was Northwood’s first team title in any sport since the school opened in 1970, and it was fueled by the heartbreak the team experienced the previous year. During the shortened 2020-21 season, the Chargers started 14-0 and made it all the way to the state semifinals before falling to Asheboro, 54-44.

“This group of girls was just incredible,” head coach Kerri Snipes told the News + Record. “They had the talent and they were able to put it together to help us achieve our goal … The returners (from 2020-21) wanted that feeling of being on top by the end of the season and to play in the championship game. They worked hard the whole season and did everything we asked them to do — and it paid off in the end.”

During the 2021 offseason, Snipes took over for Cameron Vernon, who had amassed an overall record of 238-87 as the Chargers’ head coach from 2010-2020. She had served as an assistant on Northwood’s staff for the previous four seasons before earning her shot to lead the team.

The transition between coaches proved smoother than expected for the Chargers, as they opened the season with nine straight wins before falling to 4A school Millbrook in a holiday tournament. From there, Northwood won its next 21 games by an average of 27.6 points per game. In the playoffs, the Chargers won two of their first three games by over 50 points before eventually defeating Burlington-Williams, 66-52, in the fourth round to earn a trip back to the Final Four.

This time around, Northwood absorbed a few early blows before eking out a 51-50 win over Williams. The 3A state final was a decidedly less dramatic affair, as the Chargers dominated Enka, 70-42, at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.

“It was just incredible,” Snipes said of her first season in charge. “I was so blessed to be able to have the staff and the support we’ve had from Coach Vernon and the rest of the administration and from everyone else at the school who supported us along the way … It was a really neat experience, and obviously one we haven’t had here at Northwood (before).”

Northwood’s state championship rings — which were designed by Southern Recognition Inc. with the help of the team and funded by the Pittsboro community and local businesses — feature the green Northwood Charger logo on the face surrounded by gems and the words “STATE CHAMPIONS.” On one side, the Northwood name, a trophy and the phrase “FIRST-EVER” signal an end to the school’s long title drought.

“The 52 years it took before a team state championship was almost viewed as kind of a curse, because we’ve had a lot of good teams in the past — the basketball teams, our baseball teams, cross country, golf,” Vernon said. “We’ve had a lot of teams get close but not quite make it over the hump, so this year it was really special to break that streak and get that monkey off our back.”

When they take the court for the 2022 season, the Chargers will look much different from the team that won the title this past year. Gone are four seniors, including Olivia Porter — who led Northwood in points (18.0), rebounds (6.4), assists (3.8) and steals (4.3) per game. Also no longer with the team are Natalie Bell (8.8 points), Myla Marve (7.9 points, 4.3 rebounds) and Carolina Allen (5.5 points, 4.6 rebounds).

Porter, who was named the MVP of the 2022 3A state championship game after totaling 18 points, four rebounds, five assists and four steals, was selected to the North Carolina Coaches Association East-West All-Star Game in July. She finished that game with 10 points, five rebounds and two assists, including nine points in a decisive fourth quarter.

The recent Northwood grad joined the Chargers just before the 2021-22 season after transferring from Auburn High in Alabama and instantly became their go-to scorer and initiator on offense. Porter — a 5-foot-8 point guard — is committed to play collegiately at Michigan State starting this winter and was in attendance for Friday’s ceremony along with the rest of her teammates.

“Olivia is one of a kind,” Snipes said. “She came in as a transfer and really started to gel with other players as soon as she got here. She’s been a really big leader for us — maybe not always verbally, but she would lead by example and get after it each day in practice. She was a good teammate to the rest of the group, and she’s going to be a big loss for us. She brought a lot to our team both on and off the court, so we’ll certainly miss her. She has an incredible journey ahead of her playing at Michigan State, so we’re excited to see what the future holds for her.”

Despite the losses her team has suffered this offseason, Snipes is excited for what the upcoming year has in store. The Chargers bring back a handful of contributors from last season, including rising senior forward Tekeyah Bland (8.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 blocks per game), rising senior Gianna McManaman (5.6 points, 3.0 assists per game) and rising junior Skylar Adams (6.6 points, 3.2 assists per game).

Snipes also highlighted rising sophomore Natalia Whitaker as a player who could take on a larger role in 2022-23. As a freshman last season, Whitaker averaged 4.3 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game.

“(Whitaker) was a great hustler this past season, and she’s been working out all summer,” Snipes said. “I’m so excited to see how she can contribute even more as a sophomore. We’ve also got some incoming freshmen coming in who, once we get our teams established, we’ll be able to help fill some of those voids as well.”

Jeremy Vernon can be reached at jeremy@chathamnr.com or @jbo_vernon.

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