North Surry seniors Arin Bunker and Jessy Nichols will be going 59 miles up the road for the next stop in their academic and athletic careers, but odds are that the two members of the 2A state basketball runners-up will feel right at home.
Bunker and Nichols, who played a combined six seasons of varsity basketball for the Lady Hounds, were two of many North Surry players who caught the eye of college scouts during a season where their team won 26 games, advanced to the state championship game, and played five games against teams that won state championships.
The two friends hoped to play together at the next level, and were recruited by several of the same schools. On Tuesday, they each signed with Ferrum College in the presence of their families, their travel ball coaches on the Surry Storm, and NSHS head coach Shane Slate.
“We kind of wanted to go to the same place, so we would have someone we knew,” said Nichols, who played four varsity seasons for the Lady Hounds, and chose the Panthers over Brevard and Montreat.
Bunker, who was recruited by those two schools and Guilford, along with Ferrum, agreed.
“If we had felt our best options were at different places, that’s what we were going to do, but playing together was what we wanted,” she said.
Helping Ferrum, which went 18-9 last year and won the East Division of the USA South Conference, land the pair was the presence of two former teammates already on the Panthers’ roster. As a freshman at North, Nichols played alongside Erin March, who signed with Ferrum and has become one of the team’s starting forwards. In addition, both players know Brooke Lewis, who played for Surry Central in high school, but was their teammate on the Storm. Lewis, like March, started for Ferrum during its strong 2016-17 season.
“I played with Erin March my freshman year, and we both know Brooke, who played with the Surry Storm,” said Nichols.
“Knowing them helped us with the decision, and I think it will help us to be more comfortable when we get there,” Bunker added.
Ferrum had just nine players on its roster during the winter, and will return all five starters next season, meaning that Bunker and Nichols could experience immediate success on the college level. It wouldn’t be an unfamiliar experience to them.
Both players cited last year’s run to the state championship as a highlight of their athletic careers for North Surry. Nichols said she saw it coming.
“I knew that we had some good players coming up who would help us, like Elle (Sutphin), and I knew we’d have a good team because we didn’t lose that many seniors,” she said. “We were used to playing with each other, so we knew our senior year, we had a good chance.
The arrival of Sutphin, a 6’2” senior who made All-District as a freshman, along with the return of junior six-footer Martha Holt from an injury, gave the Lady Hounds a dominating front-line rotation when paired up with returning standout Mikaela Johnson. Nichols and Bunker were key parts of a team that was clearly one of the best in the state, taking a game from the 1A state champs and pushing the 4A champs to overtime.
The run ended in the state championship game, where North Surry couldn’t match up defensively against Duke-bound Mikayla Boykin of the Clinton Darkhorses. The Lady Hounds made a fourth-quarter run, but eventually fell 59-49 in a game where Boykin, the state Player of the Year, scored 31 of Clinton’s points, assisted on 10 more, and also led her team in rebounding.
“We did what we had been doing all year and it had been working,” said Nichols, who plans to major in elementary education at Ferrum. “We were only down by four in the fourth quarter and it just kind of slipped away.”
Bunker, who plans to study business marketing, said that losing the last game didn’t take anything away from what the team had accomplished.
“Honestly, other than (the state championship), it was just playing the sport I loved with the people that I loved,” she said of the things that mattered most to her. “The people on the basketball team were my best friends.”
Both she and Nichols will be around friends, both old and new, as they begin the next chapter in their lives.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.