West head coach Joey Bryson watches his freshman son Ben, at left, and senior Eli Sellas do a dribbling drill Monday. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
“I’m very exciting to come back, and be around familiar faces,” 1995 West alumnus Bryson said of the job he has eyed for decades. “I’ve been gone for over 20 years.” He is instilling a “Showtime”-like running attack that should entertain crowds. Above all, he said, “I’m coming back, to restore tradition and win championships.”
Bryson, hired earlier this month, is perfect to revitalize West as he did at North Buncombe. He led the Blackhawks to 20-5, 22-5 then 19-6 seasons to cap his five years there. Bearded Bryson won at least a share of the regular-season 3-A crown in the elite Mountain Athletic Conference (MAC), for the past two seasons. He shared ‘14-15 MAC coach of the year honors with his N.B. predecessor, David Rhoney of Erwin.
Coach Joey Bryson briskly gestures to make a point, in practice Monday. Watching in the dribbling drill is his son, point guard Ben Bryson. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Bryson’s crew ended West’s so-so 11-13 season, in playoffs this winter. West was fifth at 7-7, in the WNC Athletic Association that Smoky Mountain won. In Bryson’s day, West won 11 by midseason. He replaces Billy Phillips, who left at June’s onset and now teaches at T.C. Roberson.
Bryson’s MAC success is pivotal. West and North Henderson and Tuscola go to an all-3-A MAC in 2017-18. Bryson first coached three Georgia high schools in five years.
West co-captains Luke Manuel, at left, and Joey Bryson flank head coach Rick Wood at an awards banquet as seniors in 1995.
“I’m excited he’s coming home,” said his West coach, Rick Wood, who is retired and serves on the school board. “He was so special as a player, and a person.” Wood watched a handful of N.B. games a year. “I’ve seen him progress as a coach.”
Joey is Tommy and Lynn Bryson’s younger of two sons. He is “Joe” to family. His wife, the former April Sorrells, won 3-A state titles with West in basketball and volleyball in 1990-91, as a sophomore. She ended as a 5-foot-10 center and outside hitter, then middle blocker at “App State.” She values returning to “familiar” Mills River. They were church friends, then dated once he graduated in ’95 for five years. They married in 2000. She teaches elementary P.E., in Asheville.
Joey Bryson dunks versus North Henderson, as a senior in 1995. He is a masked super hero, wearing a protective mask after an injury.
Their eldest of three children, rising West freshman Ben, turns 14 on July 18. The multi-skilled, 5-11 point guard led N.B. Middle to the conference title. “He’s a great floor leader, and extremely unselfish,” Joey said. “He has to earn any (playing time and) success he has.”
“It’s great to go where my Dad and Mom were legends,” Ben said. Like his father, he admires Bulls’ pro player Derek Rose. “He’s humble. He hustles.”
Bryson’s impact is immediate, far beyond as a role model for winning. West is conditioning for speed and stamina, to run bigger foes off of the court. “Running the floor” is the first lesson senior Cole Thomas realizes, after a week of practice. “We’re buying into it.” The Falcons practiced fast break rebounding/passing/running drills Monday. They were accurate with quick shots, and snap fast-break passing.
Joey Bryson is back at his alma mater, West Henderson, as head coach. He is with his son Ben Bryson, a freshman point guard. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
“We’ll completely change the dynamics of West basketball,” Coach Bryson said. “We play the fast-paced game kids like to play today. We score fast, before defenses set up.” This starts with defensive rebounding and outlet passes — as in a new drill Monday. “Our pace tends to stay the same offensively,” he said.
“Defensively, we may play zone and slow down more athletic kids.” But mostly, “we play full court man to man, and then fall back into half court man” defense. Critical to a frenzied pace is fitness with speed and strength, he said. “We want to compete at the highest level.”
Scoring is likely balanced. “Our go-to player is whoever is open,” he said. The top returning Falcon scorer, senior Will Lindsey, neared double digits.
In his day, swift Bryson was the prime option. He was deadly in outside shooting, also driving in. Western Carolina University teammates called him “The Microwave,” a la the Pistons’ Vinnie Johnson, because “I could heat things up” in a hurry, Bryson noted.
Bryson dunked for West, as a 6-foot-3 small forward with 38-inch vertical leap. He morphed into a power forward as a WCU junior, bulking up by 45 pounds to 220 and as an inch taller. WCU won the Southern Conference tourney in his freshman year, and came within two points of historically upsetting a top seed (Purdue) in the NCAA tourney.
Civil War buff Bryson set a standard as a West player for skill and battle-like ferocity. “No one matched his intensity,” said West assistant coach Rusty Ward, who said that intangible can be the team’s prime gain from the new coach. Ward as a North Knight tried to guard his friend, quipping. “I’m responsible for many of Joey’s points.” He said Bryson “did everything — from post to perimeter,” Ward said. “He was fundamentally sound.”
The sharpshooter averaged an amazing 26.6 points and 8.6 rebounds, as a senior small forward. Number 34 scored more (1,782) points than any Falcon in his three seasons. His ninth grade was in junior high hoops, while West went 29-1 and reached the ’92 state title game for its best showing.
His school records include seasonal shooting of 58.7 percent, debuting in 1992-93. His 81.1 percent as a senior was the second-best foul-shooting season in Wood’s 40 years. He is in the school’s Wall of Fame.
“He’s the man,” vocal leader Thomas said. Senior Eli Sellas said, “he knows how to win” as a player and coach.
Bryson’s fine defense sets him apart from the county’s other super scorers, several veteran coaches agreed in discussing greatest locals. A consensus is Bryson is West’s best, and the county’s top gun for over 40 years. “It took LeBron James (who just won Cleveland’s first NBA title, in an historic comeback) and Michael Jordan a long time to figure out to play defense,” he told the Falcons Monday. He stressed that offensive rebounding earns a player bonus scoring chances. “That’s the only time when you can shoot all that you want.”
Coach Bryson said, “We have a lot of coachable young kids, who work extremely hard. They’re hungry to turn this back into a competitive program.” Ben Bryson foresees “we’ll go game to game, and figure what we did wrong so we improve.”
Joey Bryson said “I’m a passionate coach. Most of my emotions come out in the locker room, not on the court. I don’t call a kid out, in front of the stands.” Coach Wood similarly told players “I won’t embarrass you during the game. So don’t embarrass me” by play and conduct.
Rather than yank a player after a gaffe, “I’ll let kids play through their mistakes at first. I don’t want them to be afraid of making mistakes,” when going all out, Bryson said. “A group should play together, to build trust, chemistry and continuity.” He emulates “positive energy” of Wood and Ohio State coach Thad Matta, whom helped coach him at WCU.
“Rick Wood is a tremendous role model,” he said. “He’s mild mannered, like (Tar Heel coach) Dean Smith. “But when he (rarely) raised his voice, it had to be for a reason.” He learned from Wood not to belittle officials. “We’re all human. Bad calls (accidentally) happen. Be respectful. If you’re ugly to officials, you won’t get a (close) call late in the game when you need it most.”
Joey and April Bryson are with their children in May. (L-R)
He savors securing Wood’s 500th career victory as a huge upset, to win a Christmas tourney over athletic Spartanburg. “The bigger, stronger and faster team usually wins. But when you play with confidence, you can do it. You can dictate tempo of the game, and beat anybody.”
His squad won the first Falcon boys’ athletic contest in the gym, over Pisgah when it opened in late 1992. April was a senior, as the girls opened the gym’s legacy.
Current Falcons listen intently to stories and quotes the new coach passes on, such as Dean Smith’s urging star recruits to “get over yourself. Be a great teammate.” Bryson spoke of Jordan and the ‘95-6 Bulls fitting roles, as West squads of that era also did. His teammates note the Falcons eagerly turned to their Air Jordan, as go-to scorer.
“We could rely on him in the clutch, to hit the big shot and get the crowd going,” said his power forward teammate Luke Manuel, who starts his third year as Hendersonville Middle principal. “Others found their niche.” Bryson said, “you gotta have those guys around you” to click.
On those West squads “there was no jealousy,” said bench captain Ronnie Coren, who recently coached North Knights’ hoops. “When Joey scored 32, we all felt we scored 32.” Bryson learned from Wood “we play one way — together.”
Camaraderie helped, Manuel said. “We hung out together. We gelled as friends, and teammates.” He recalls Bryson’s “humor. But he was serious about basketball, and doing his best. He worked hard— year-round. With his play, he’d elevate our level. He’s a great role model.” He said of the hire, “I’m thrilled for Joey, and for Falcon Nation.”