written by R.L. Bynum
Podcast brings to life East Chapel Hill’s improbable 1997 run to a state title
Many sports writers realize soon after covering a magical March run that there is so much more to the story.
Neil Amato, as The Herald-Sun’s prep sports editor in 1997, wasn’t just thinking about a couple of follow-up stories.
“I probably knew immediately,” Amato said. “I knew when I was 26 that it was an incredible story. And, for a long time, I was like, ‘Oh, this could be a book.’ But life gets in the way. And book ideas get put aside pretty easily.”
There are many layers to East Chapel Hill High School’s improbable 1996–97 boys basketball season. In the school’s first year of existence, the Wildcats went 24–5 and, on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by junior guard Andy Jones, beat Hickory 60–59 in the state 3-A championship game.
There are so many stories that have begged to be told all these years later. Amato had to cover 15 high schools that year and didn’t have the time to write a book. He didn’t know how to get a book deal at that point, anyway.
After years of “pushing the idea down the road” and realizing that he didn’t have the time to write a book on the 1997 Wildcats, Amato gave up on the idea several times over the years.
Amato thought instead about a podcast series focusing on that East Chapel Hill team. Stuck at home during the pandemic, it seemed like a perfect project since he couldn’t go out and do a lot of things he would normally like to do.
Amato has conducted around 50 interviews with more than 30 people for the podcast “1-2-3 Wildcats.” He will narrate at least 12 episodes of about 30 or 40 minutes in length, with the debut set for Nov. 6.
“I think people like a surprising and inspiring story. And the way this all came together, I believe, is pretty surprising. It’s pretty inspiring,” said Amato, who hosts podcasts as part of his job as a senior editor at the AICPA.
Amato talked to every living member of that team (former Clemson star Chris Hobbs died in 2015 at age 33), ECH coach Ray Hartsfield (left), who is retired as a teacher but still coaches the team, and many others.
“They have been excellent dealing with my phone calls and nitpicky questions,” Amato said. “I think we’re going have a pretty great story to tell.”
Not only was junior forward Brian FitzGerald the tournament MVP, but he also produced the below YouTube trailer for the podcast.
“He’s been the MVP of this process really because he has been able to lend a creative voice but also actual video-editing skills,” Amato said. “He’s been so important. Obviously, the cooperation of the guys has been great. It’s neat — you know, being able to catch up with them, reconnect with them.”
There was no East Chapel Hill radio broadcast. But the radio call of the championship game from JuJu Phillips on Hickory radio station WHKY is woven in because Phillips saved a cassette tape of his broadcast.
“It’s really neat to have that. And it really adds to the excitement that we can not only say, ‘hey there was a really incredible basketball game,’ but we can actually play the drama through the podcast,” Amato said.
With a full-time day job, the podcast option was always more realistic than writing a book.
“The idea of a podcast, one, seemed like a modern way to tell the story. Two, it just sounded like it would take less time because I wouldn’t actually be transcribing the interviews. But I still had to listen to them all and I’m still in the process of listening to them all,” Amato said.
He probably would have made money with a book or if he tried to get podcasts sponsors. Amato, an Apex resident, wanted to keep the work on this podcast outside of business hours and didn’t want to have to take calls related to the ECH podcast during the day. That’s another reason that he’s producing the podcast himself, using the Audacity sound-editing software on a laptop his daughter used to use.
With no monetary benefit from the project, Amato says it’s accurate to call it a labor of love.
“I always did love high school sports because, and maybe I was mistaken, it just felt a little less corporate and a little more pure when I was covering them,” Amato said. “A lot of people in journalism, in sports, they get their start in high schools, and they have a dream to cover SEC football or the NBA or the NHL or ACC or whatever.
“And while I did, obviously, cover the ACC later, I don’t know that it was ever my dream to keep going up in level of sport because I did love high schools. That’s one reason that I’m really glad that on this podcast, I have the voices of two people who absolutely love high school sports.”
Those voices are legendary former News & Observer preps writer Tim Stevens, who is in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, and Rick Strunk, who retired in 2015 after 30 years working in media relations at the NCHSAA.
“Their ability to put this event into context helped make this podcast,” Amato said of Stevens and Strunk. “It’s not just, ‘here are a few players talking about what they remember about what happened 23 years ago.’ ”
After working at the Winston-Salem Journal, where the 1992 UNC journalism graduate split time between covering high school sports and working the desk, he started at The Herald-Sun in January 1997 as its prep sports writer. East Chapel Hill captured the state title March 22, 1997.
East Chapel Hill’s victory was the main package on the next day’s Herald-Sun sports front. Freelancer Bruce Margulies wrote the game story and Lee Montgomery wrote a column. Amato wrote a 1,500-word behind-the-scenes look at the timeline for the players that day, starting with when they arrived at school at 3 p.m. until they left the Smith Center at 10:30 p.m. Shooting photos was Walt Unks, now a photojournalist for the Winston-Salem Journal.
Even when he left that preps beat to cover UNC in December 1998, he still sometimes covered high school games on Friday nights but not as many after his son was born the next year. He left The Herald-Sun in August 2005 and was sports editor of the Wilmington Star-News for more than three years. Amato was a copy editor/writer at The News & Observer for nearly a year and has been at the AICPA since June 2012. He also sometimes works as a sports stringer for The Associated Press.
As if a high school winning a state title in the school’s first year of existence wasn’t enough, there are several interesting sidebars to this story. But you’ll have to listen to the podcast to discover all of them.
“I’m going to keep quiet and say there’s a cool surprise,” he said. “I’m just going to say that it relates to the summer after they won the state title. There’s kind of a cool tie-in that I’m not sure many people know about.”
The podcast includes a lot about the rivalry with the Chapel Hill High Tigers.
Nearly every ECH player was at Chapel Hill High the previous year. Even though the Tigers had a talented team, the Wildcats beat them twice. ECH only lost to one 3-A team all season, losing twice to 4-A Hillside and twice to 4-A Jordan.
“Some of those East Chapel Hill guys, there was no guarantee they were going to make the varsity team as juniors at Chapel Hill High School if the school doesn’t open,” Amato said.
Amato says that it’s not accurate to call ECH’s run to the title a Cinderella story because they were good players.
Five players played in college (freshman center Hobbs, FitzGerald at Longwood and UNCG, Jones at Longwood, junior guard Paul Kindem at Guilford and junior small forward Brad Woolley at Guilford) and a sixth, freshman Eric Henderson, turned down offers from smaller schools to play on UNC’s junior varsity team. Jones transferred to UNC after one year.
All six of those players played in the championship game.
In their run to the title, East Chapel Hill beat reigning state 3-A champion Burlington Williams and Southern Vance, which was the No. 1-ranked 3-A team in the AP poll. The Wildcats went 25-4 the following season and lost in the state semifinals, but not before beating Southern Nash in the quarterfinals in Julius Peppers’ final high school game.
“It seems like every championship team has an escape or two,” Amato said. “They have close games. They have games they should have lost. I actually talked to some of the people in those early-round playoff games, and got their perspective on … ‘Man, we thought we were going to beat this team and we didn’t.’ ”
How tough is it for a coach to win at a new school, much less win a state title? Amato documents how Howard West won two state titles in Virginia and three more state championships at Winston-Salem’s Reynolds High School. But when he started a program at Reagan High School in Pfafftown, the team went 1–24 in its first season.
Hartsfield came into that championship season with two years of coaching experience at Forbush High School in Yadkin County.
How did Hartsfield pull it off? Find out when the “1-2-3 Wildcats” podcast comes out next month.
NBC lays off veteran NFL writer Gantt
NBC Sports has laid off Darin Gantt after 8½ years. Gantt, who wrote for the network’s popular website profootballtalk.com, announced the news Friday on Twitter.
He posted 10 stories with injury updates Friday on his final day with NBC.
Before joining NBC, he covered the Carolina Panthers for nearly 15 years for The Charlotte Observer and the Rock Hill Herald. Before that, the 1993 Appalachian State journalism graduate was a reporter for the Gaston Gazette.
“I don’t know what’s next,” Gantt wrote on Twitter. “Someone once told me I was happiest in press boxes. Strangely, it wasn’t a compliment. But that’s where many of my dearest friends are, friends you’d move a couch for, though those couches are far away.”
Joyce to cover Wake Forest hoops
Ethan Joyce will cover Wake Forest men’s basketball for the Winston-Salem Journal and the News & Record of Greensboro.
Joyce has been covering Appalachian State for the newspapers. He will continue to cover the Mountaineers’ football team while also covering the Demon Deacons’ first season under first-year coach Steve Forbes. John Dell will continue to cover Wake Forest football and also cover Winston-Salem State basketball.
Joyce, who covered protests last summer, wrote his first Wake Forest basketball story Friday.
Until being part of the Lee Enterprises layoffs last month, Conor O’Neill was the Wake Forest beat writer for the two papers. He is now a correspondent for the North Carolina McClatchy newspapers.
Hurt starts a weekly radio show
Vashti Hurt, the publisher of the website Carolina Blitz, debuted a weekly 30-minute Saturday radio show, “Carolina Blitz,” at 10:30 a.m. on WZGV (730 The Game) in Charlotte last weekend. She plans to have a different co-host for each show.
Hurt extensively covers the Carolina Panthers and ACC football and basketball on her website and social media.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
In The Undefeated, Martenzie Johnson talked to former Duke star Shane Battier about his role as a member of the Miami Heat’s analytics department and using predictive data to make the franchise successful.
In The N&O, Luke DeCock wrote about the rebirth of football at Barton College, which has been postponed until spring. The school cobbled together some nice facilities for a Division II program, using various off-campus buildings that were used for other purposes.
In the North State Journal, Shawn Krest wrote about how ACC schools in North Carolina have been creating crowd noise when there is little or no crowd at their football stadiums.
In The N&O, Andrew Carter wrote about how COVID-19 has created numerous financial challenges for college athletic programs.
It sounds like a daunting goal: Run on every street in your city. For Duke Today, former newspaper sports writer Stephen Schramm wrote about three Duke employees who are trying to do that: two in Durham and another in Chapel Hill.
In The Charlotte Observer, Jonathan Alexander wrote about how Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow has tried to coach up the defense by being a brutally honest Yoda.
Will Graves of The Associated Press wrote about how Pittsburgh Steelers tight end (and former UNC star) Eric Ebron always has something to say and is loud and proud.
It’s been a crazy fall for high school football players. In The Local Reporter, a nonprofit online Orange County news site, Landon Bost wrote about two brothers who were all-conference last season for East Chapel Hill but will have to wait until February to play games.
In The Washington Post, Lori Piccolo, daughter of Brian Piccolo, wrote about her memories of Gayle Sayers, the NFL legend who died last month. Brian Piccolo is the former Wake Forest and Chicago Bears player who died of cancer and had that fight portrayed in the 1971 movie “Brian’s Song.”