DOBSON — Surry Central’s Zach Wilmoth will play basketball for Lees-McRae University.
Zach began his high school career in the shadow of his cousin, star point guard Ethan Wilmoth. But it didn’t take long for people to take notice of the 6-foot-5 freshman.
Zach was a complimentary piece his first two years, playing Horace Grant to Ethan’s Michael Jordan, earning all-conference honorable mention as a sophomore. However, he stepped up into a leadership role his last two years and became one of the most respected 2A players in the state.
Zach earned all-conference for the Northwest Conference as a junior, then again in the new Western Piedmont Conference this past winter.
More awards followed this spring, including Western Piedmont player of the year, N.C. Coaches Association All-District 11 first team, the Winston-Salem Journal’s All-Northwest Team and the NCPreps.com 2A all-state team.
While Ethan broke the school’s all-time scoring record, Zach also eclipsed that old mark and finished second to Ethan with 1,341 points. He did his cousin once better by breaking the school record for rebounds, finishing with 883.
“One of my favorite memories is just playing with Ethan through sophomore year. … That was the best year we had, making it to the final 16. It was a great experience, lot of guys playing different roles, trying to do their best.”
Zach said over the past two seasons he put in several hours on his own in addition to team practices and games. Ethan was renowned for his work ethic; Zach said his private workouts would be long, but not quite Ethan-long.
“You’ve got to work hard,” he said of leading by example. “You can’t tell them to do something if you’re not doing it.”
“Zach is about as humble as they come,” head coach Ken Eiswald said. “He is the hardest worker on the team. He’s almost embarrassed when he gets awards and things. He does what he can to help us win. Even though he was the conference player of the year, you would never know it by the way he carries himself. He was the most popular guy on the team.”
Eiswald said Zach was a great role model for younger teammates and kids watching in the stands. He made the National Honor Society, was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Students, had great attendance, kept his priorities in the right place and stayed humble.
“He’s a kid that’s done everything for us the last four years,” Eiswald said. “You’ve got a 6-foot-5 guy on the perimeter who can knock down threes. … When we needed a big shot, he was the guy taking that shot. He came through for us pretty consistently.”
Zach was always a factor on the boards, despite spending time on the perimeter, the coach said.
The senior averaged 19.4 points and 10 rebounds per game, as well as one assist, steal and block.
His averages are even more impressive considering the ball-control attack that Surry Central favored.
The Eagles scored just 56.3 points per game. If the team had a faster tempo, more like 70 points a game, then that same level of scoring would have given Zach 24.1 points a game.
Zach made 51 percent on two-point shot attempts while leading the team with 38 three-pointers made. He also led the team in foul shots earned with 165 shots, making 64 percent of them.
Understanding that he was needed out on the floor, he kept his reaching to a minimum and picked up only 2.1 fouls a game.
Asked what he loves about basketball, Zach answered, “Just everything, I guess. The competitiveness of the games is unlike any other sport. It takes a lot of skill to play basketball, so there’s a lot of hard work put into it.”
As for his versatility, playing three different spots for the Eagles, Zach said, “It always keeps the defense guessing. They never know coming into the game where you’re going to play. It kind of helps you out because you can do different things.”
“When he was little — I mean, learning to walk — he would carry a basketball around with him,” said mom Lori. “I have a picture at home where he’s sitting on a basketball watching basketball on TV.”
“He always wanted to participate in a sport where he could move and run,” she recalled. “He had a soccer coach tell them one time, ‘If you don’t do this, I’m going to make you run.’ And Zach was like, ‘Okay! Yay! I like to run.’”
He started in the first grade, dad Jeff said. Zach picked up a lot just watching it on TV.
Zach played in youth leagues, then joined an AAU team in middle school.
“I started in seventh grade with a team out of Pilot. Played with them until last year,” Zach said. That was the Carolina Bearcats. His first coach was Kenny Meredith, father of East Surry standout Scott Meredith. Then later on, Zach’s distant cousin, Marcus Wilmoth, coached the team.
“It was a good experience,” said Jeff. “They got to play against a lot of different teams than they are used to playing around here.
While also in the seventh grade, Zach played at Central Middle School for a coach, who also led the boys’ tennis team.
“I picked it up then and stuck with it through high school,” said Zach. “My brother played tennis.”
Tyler, a 2007 graduate, also sang in the chorus, Jeff noted.
“Tennis is more of a mental game because you only beat yourself,” said Zach.
Along with doubles partner Trent Day, Zach earned all-conference honors the past two seasons. Zach and Trent finished third in the Northwest Conference in doubles, then took second in the new Western Piedmont this spring.
As for picking Lees-McRae, Jeff said all the schools that they visited were small because Zach and his parents all thought that would be the best fit for a small-town kid.
His AAU coach, Marcush, had coached at Lees-McRae a few years ago, so that helped open a door there.
A Division II school, Lees-McRae can offer an athletic scholarship.
“The coach said the teachers, the professors know who the basketball players are. ‘If they don’t show up for class, their grades are going bad, we hear,’” said Jeff.
That reminded him of Central, the dad said. “The coaches here were really concerned about the players’ welfare and how they were treated.”
And at about one hour and 40 minutes from their house, it’s close enough for the parents to go see some home games.
As for his course of study, Zach said he is still undecided on a major.