Winning Eagles embrace Thompson as head coach

Feb. 26, 2014 @ 12:13 AM

Nobody touches her towel.

She knows it’s silly, but a routine is a routine. And it’s going to be replicated precisely.

Before every Warren County varsity boys basketball game, head coach Wanda Thompson wets a towel, wipes her face, folds the towel and places it on the second chair of the Eagles’ bench. Not the first chair, it has to be the second. Then, assistant coach Danny Hedgepeth is left to guard the towel. No one lays a hand on it.

Thompson used a lavender towel in Warren County’s 53-51 win at Bunn earlier this month that snapped a 16-game Wildcats winning streak. Somehow, the towel got away and the Eagles, on an eight-game winning steak of their own, lost their next contest 42-40 at home against Roanoke Rapids.

Then there’s Thompson’s black Eagles windbreaker.

“Oh, that’s the lucky one,” she says.

Thompson roamed the sidelines in it in Warren County’s 62-50 win over Carrboro on Monday in the first round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 2-A playoffs. It was the first playoff victory for the Eagles since 2005, the year the team reached the state final.

Thompson is in her third season as the Eagles’ head coach. The characteristics she exhibits aren’t unlike most high school boys coaches. She’s clearly superstitious, fiery and a self-described disciplinarian who wants her team playing fast, but in control.

Of course, what makes Thompson unique in varsity boys basketball is gender. There aren’t many female head coaches in the state. Rick Strunk, the associate commissioner of communications for the NCHSAA, knows of one at Asheville High School.

Thompson, the former varsity girls coach at Warren County, said there probably aren’t more than a few.

Sheila Boles, a member of the NCHSAA Hall of Fame, is credited as the first female varsity boys basketball coach in the state at Wilmington Hoggard in 1989.

Boles was the first female scholarship athlete at UNC Wilmington, where Thompson played basketball and softball for the Seahawks, graduating in 1988.

Boles’ appointment as a varsity boys head coach was controversial and the resistance was fierce, according to a 2011 Wilmington Star-News story.

Thompson seems to have been welcomed with open arms in Warrenton.

“I don’t know what would happen in other communities, but I have had so much support in this community coaching the varsity boys,” said Thompson.

And staunch endorsement from her team.

‘We’re a family’

Wanda Thompson grew up in the small community of Macon and starred in basketball and softball at Warren Academy.

Thompson was named Warren County’s athletics director in 2012, the same year she took over the varsity boys hoops program, becoming the third head coach for the team in three seasons. She coached the junior varsity boys team in 2011, leading the likes of current Eagles seniors Justin Fitts and Charlie Williams.

Fitts is a versatile player, capable of playing any position on the floor. Williams, listed at 5-foot-9, is a sharpshooter, but more than capable of finishing near the basket.

Fitts and Williams each grew up with Thompson as their rec league coach.

“The whole female thing, I’ve never even looked at that,” said Fitts.

“We’ve been together a long time,” Williams said of his relationship with Thompson. “We have a great chemistry. I love her to death and I’m going to miss her next year.”

Five more players on Warren County’s roster were also coached by Thompson in rec league, including her son, Tyler.

Tyler is a junior point guard, one not shy about shooting. Having opened up a six-point lead on No. 22 Carrboro on Monday with about a minute to play, Wanda Thompson wanted her team to be patient. The ball found its way to an open Tyler in the corner. Wanda yelled, “Don’t shoot.”

But Tyler fired and nailed the 3 to put the game on ice.

Wanda liked to shoot it too. Her Warriors jersey was retired at now defunct Warren Academy.

“I guess that’s maybe where Tyler gets it from,” said Wanda. “He likes to shoot and I loved to shoot too when I played.”

Wanda has coached Tyler on nearly every level.

“Her way or no way,” Tyler said of her coaching methods. “That’s all I know. She’s hard working. She wants to win. She doesn’t want to lose.”

Tyler doesn’t think he gets treated any different than his teammates although it can be difficult to keep his emotions in check when players or fans make snide comments about the Eagles’ female coach that happens to be his mother.

“I’m not going to get beat by a girl coach,” Fitts remembers hearing on the court. “She doesn’t deserve to be a coach of a varsity team.”

“It’s hard to hold everything back, but I just have to let it go in one ear and out the other,” said Tyler. “You just have to ignore it, keep playing. You can’t let it throw you off because that’s what they want.”

“All of us, we’re a family,” added Fitts. “From the coaching staff to the fans to the players. You say something to one of us, you say it to all of us.”

Why not Warren County?

Wanda Thompson remembers laughing with her all-male group of assistant coaches before games in her first season as head coach. 

Thompson wondered, “Alright, which of y’all’s hands are the officials going to come shake before I have to go up and shake their hand?”

But Thompson hasn’t experienced much negativity about her role as varsity boys head coach.

Being coached by a female doesn’t seem to have been an issue for her team, of which she requires an 80 average in schoolwork to remain on the roster.

“I could not ask for a better group of guys,” said Thompson. “They’re respectful. They’re just wonderful. They try hard. We work them hard. They give us all they have.”

Thompson feels she has been welcomed into the Northern Carolina Conference coaching fraternity. The coaches treat her “like one of the guys.”

Two of Warren County’s biggest rivals are nearby Northern Vance and Southern Vance. Thompson coached Southern’s varsity girls basketball team in the 90s.

Southern rejoined the Eagles in the Northern Carolina Conference this season. While coaching in Virginia, the Raiders’ first-year head coach Greg Ackles had never come across a female varsity boys head coach until Thompson this season.

Warren County won both games against Southern in front of packed gyms in Warrenton and Henderson.

“She’s obviously doing something right,” said Ackles. “Once the ball goes up, it’s basketball. It’s not coaching against a woman. It’s just flat-out basketball. Kudos to her and good luck to them. I hope they represent the conference and go as far as they can go.”

How far can the Eagles go?

They’re one victory shy of a 20-win season after a second-place league finish.

Thompson doesn’t know what’s going to happen tonight in the second round of the playoffs at Clinton, but she hopes she has at least instilled in her players the confidence that winning is possible.

Thompson asks her team “Why not us?”

The Eagles are listening.

“I think we all just have a lot of respect for her,” said Williams. “We respect what she says. We listen to what she says because we know she wants to make us better. She wants us to win.”

Contact the writer at kholtzman@hendersondispatch.com.