03/20/11 — Boys' All-Area Coach of the Year: Southern Wayne's Russell Stephens

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Boys' All-Area Coach of the Year: Southern Wayne's Russell Stephens

By Ryan Hanchett
Published in Sports on March 20, 2011 1:51 AM

Leave the program how you found it is what Southern Wayne High School head basketball coach Russell Stephens tells his team before the season begins.

Each year during Stephens' tenure, the feeling of responsibility has grown and now the simple motto has begun to pay dividends on the floor. Southern Wayne finished the season 21-5 overall, and captured both the Eastern Carolina 3-A Conference regular-season and tournament championships.

Stephens also gets his own reward -- the 2010-11 News-Argus All-Area Boys' Basketball Coach of the Year.

"I have to give a ton of credit to this team because they were willing to come in and commit to the program, and they allowed me and my coaching staff to coach them," Stephens said. "We had a very close-knit group of kids this season and they always put the team goals first."

Known for his ability to work 11 and sometimes 12 players into his rotation, Stephens stressed the importance of each player to the team concept during the Saints first few games.

"We have some very good players that could have put up huge numbers if they played for other teams," Stephens said. "But we tell each guy that nobody gets a free ride and if you are going to be on this team, we are going to find a way for you to contribute."

The Saints responded by opening the season with wins in 10 of their first 12 games.

Led by Bernard Gross, Delfawn Worrells and Khari Faison, each of whom averaged double digits this season, Southern Wayne rolled into league play as the clear favorite. The group did not disappoint and posted a 10-2 regular-season ECC record.

A big part of the team's success came as a result of the impact posted by role players in key moments.

"Everybody sees what the starters can do and they understand that those guys are our leaders," Stephens said. "But guys like Devondre Johnson coming in to play defense, or Andrew Matthews running the point, those guys are a big part of what we do as a program as well."

The Saints earned a first-round bye in the conference tournament and eventually dispatched Charles B. Aycock and Triton en route to the championship. Southern Wayne dropped D.H. Conley in the opening round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3-A playoffs.

The Saints' season ended with a heartbreaking four-point loss to 2010 state champion Rocky Mount in the sectional semifinals.

"Every year we sit the guys down before the season and we talk about taking the next step," Stephens said. "Our saying is 'Leave the program how you found it,' and the last four seasons I really think that it has stuck with the guys."