If Carter Phillips’ basketball career continues on the same upward path it has taken in the last year, then opponents of Catawba College are in trouble.
Phillips began his senior season at North Surry as a returning All-Conference performer on a team expected to defend its Western Piedmont Athletic Conference title. Then he gunned in 41 points, along with nine rebounds and five assists, in a win over Westchester Country Day on the day after Thanksgiving. The win came in a showcase in front of dozens of talent scouts and college recruiters, and marked the 6’3” guard as a man to watch in the upcoming season.
And there was plenty to watch.
Phillips displayed an all-around game better than he ever had before. During the course of the season, he had six more games of 30 or more points, averaged 22.9 points and 7.9 rebounds for the season, and won WPAC Player of the Year honors even though his only real rival for the honor was a teammate. He was nominated to the AP All-State team, and ultimately led the Greyhounds all the way to the 2A state championship game.
The only thing that Phillips might want to change about his senior season was the ending, when North Surry lost in the finals to Northside-Jacksonville. Still, it was a 27-5 season that featured more success than any Greyhound team had enjoyed since the 1980s.
“Going to the state championship game my senior year was the highlight of my time here,” Phillips said. “We had a really good year. It would have been great to win the state championship, but we still had a good year.”
It was the final chapter of a journey that began when Phillips and his partner in the North Surry backcourt, Mason Hawks, first teamed up on a youth basketball team. The two, along with fellow senior Kendal Tucker, spent all of the next several years as teammates. All three of them made the North Surry varsity as freshmen. The Hounds won just 10 games that season, but vaulted to 21-5 in their sophomore season, which saw Phillips as the third-leading scorer on the team at 10 points per game. The 2015-16 season saw another 21 wins and another conference title, with Phillips pumping in 15.6 points and leading the team in rebounding at 6.7. He would have been a Player of the Year candidate, except that Hawks got it that season.
Going into his final season at North Surry, the dream of playing at the next level was there for Phillips, and he worked hard to make it a reality.
“It was just a lot of hard work, a lot of hours in the gym,” he said. “I started playing better at the start of the year and my confidence just went up. It all came down to hard work and confidence, really.”
North Surry won its first seven games of this season before losing on the road to 4A powerhouse Northwest Guilford. Sandwiched around that game were two wins over arch-rival and 1A West Regional runner-up Mount Airy. The Hounds beat other 4A teams in the South Data and Frank Spencer Holiday Classics. They had one hiccup after the New Year, when West Stokes upset them in the conference opener at the Ron King Gym.
A 16-game winning streak followed, which saw North Surry sweep the rest of its conference games and the WPAC Tournament. In the state playoffs, the Hounds won five games by double-digit margins before losing in the championship game at Reynolds Coliseum. But don’t blame Phillips — he led North Surry with 26 points and eight rebounds.
On Jan. 25, Phillips, who had strongly considered Lees-McRae, announced he would instead sign with Catawba, a member of the South Atlantic Conference in the NCAA Division II ranks. In addition to the Indians and Lees-McRae, Phillips said he was pursued by Guilford, and had interest from several other schools but not a firm offer.
In the end, he said it was an easy choice for him to make.
“Catawba acted like they really wanted me,” he said. “It was a great family feel and I liked their coaches a lot.”
He’ll be stepping into a program in solid shape. The Indians went 18-11 last year, their first winning season since 2008-09, and two of their three top scorers will be back for their senior seasons in the fall. Catawba plays a guard-oriented offense, and Phillips hopes to get into the mix early on.
“I just have to get there and earn it,” he said. “I’ll be playing at the shooting guard position for them, some point guard if they need me to.”
Based on what he accomplished in high school, count on him earning quite a lot.
“I’ll miss North Surry, but it’s time for me to take the next step,” Phillips said.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.