Deena C. Bouknight
“The little team that could” is how Michael Carrier describes Team Swish, which just won the NCAAU (North Carolina Amateur Athletic Union) State Championship in Greensboro, N.C., during Mother’s Day weekend.
Carrier, who now lives in Greensboro, resided previously in Highlands and became involved in assisting with a basketball program called Team Swish due to his son, Reid, (then a freshman at Highlands School) who played for the team for three years.
Team Swish was started by Franklin High School graduate Lee Scruggs, described in a Georgetown [Washington, D.C.] Basketball History Project report this way: “A gifted 6’11” forward, Scruggs grew up in the western North Carolina town of Franklin (pop: 2,845), where he was cut from his high school basketball team as a freshman. Two years later, a strong junior season propelled Scruggs into the national recruiting news, where Clemson, Ohio State, and Western Carolina recruited him.”
Scruggs ended up playing for Daytona Beach (Florida) Community College, where he averaged 17.9 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 4.1 blocks over two seasons. He played for Georgetown and then for the NBA Developmental League in Asheville.
When he retired from basketball, instead of walking away from the sport, he decided to use his skills to help high schoolers interested in pursuing the game seriously achieve their future goals. Thus, Team Swish was established.
“I got into coaching around 2010 due to a coaching opportunity at Rabun Gap [where he still coaches], and then I started helping a buddy out with travel ball,” said Scruggs. “And then I got an itch to start Team Swish in 2018. Growing up in Franklin, a lot of kids in Western North Carolina don’t get the credit they deserve because there is so much talent in the Eastern part of the state. So recruiters don’t pay attention to Western North Carolina guys like they should. It’s not about winning and losing for us [Team Swish]; it’s about exposure. It only takes one coach to like you – to be in the right place at the right time.”
He added, “We’ve had nine guys to go on to play college ball, to Ohio, West Virginia, Nebraska, and other schools through the United States. Since I’m a basketball junkie, I learn who is good in the area. I go around and watch games and see who is a good fit for the team. Then I reach out to the parents and give them an invitation to play. No tryouts; I hand pick the team.”
Because AAU’s rules state that a team is allowed to include on its roster three team members from outside the division’s state, Team Swish includes three Rabun Gap students. Plus, Scruggs has on his team players from other N.C. schools, such as one from Greensboro Day School and others from Pisgah High School, Mountain Heritage High School, West Henderson School, and Enka High School.
“I don’t have anyone from FHS this year,” he said. “Most of the Franklin players will play for the Big Cats, which is another AAU team. But I have had FHS students in the past.”
Assisting Scruggs is Ryan Gearhart, who is the fire chief in Highlands.
“I got into coaching when my son was young,” said Gearhart, who also worked in the past as an assistant coach at Highlands School. “Lee is a great coach and person and is doing a great thing for the boys, and it’s something I wanted to get involved in.”
“Ryan joined the team in 2020,” said Scruggs. “Yes, we actually played during COVID. We had a meeting with parents that summer to see if they wanted us to shut it down, but they wanted to continue and we took every precaution and no one got sick. Four guys got scholarships after that season. They may not have had that opportunity if we had stopped playing. Ryan is a great asset. He has that basketball mind. I trust his opinion about so much that’s involved with game planning.”
Winning the NCAAU championships was thrilling for all involved. Scruggs explained that Team Swish played in the same event three years ago and took home second place. COVID derailed the tournament for the past two years.
“We were excited to get back and play in the weekend tournament from Friday to Sunday. Our team is made up of sophomores and juniors, and we had to play six games … teams from all over the state.”
Each team member was awarded a tournament medal.
Gearhart said, “We always teach that communication is key. One person may score more than the rest, but in order for one person to score, everyone has to be doing their part. This past weekend it was the best team basketball I’ve seen in a long time. I had never been to an AAU state championship before so it was a good experience for me as a coach.”
Besides regular games and the tournament, Scruggs pointed out that Team Swish’s greatest opportunities for recognition and possible futures in basketball are the “live periods” when recruiters visit schools and watch players; there are two live periods in April and two in July.
“But winning the NCAAU tournament means we have achieved the best win for the year in North Carolina,” said Scruggs. “In fact, the win meant a lot … it’s a great accomplishment. The players sacrifice their summers because they’re serious athletes, and this win solidifies all that they put into it.”
He added, “We have several players getting interest from colleges this year so far, and this win gains even more attention. The win also makes the statement that kids from N.C. can compete with players in the Eastern part of the state.”
“These guys are selflessly helping others,” said Carrier about Scruggs and Gearhart. “And with last weekend’s win, it is one of those ‘little’ teams that beats the ‘big’ teams stories. We were the team from the smallest area competing, and we won! Lee and Ryan’s goals are to get players exposure so that they can pursue their dreams of playing in college. They talk to recruiters … help get the players noticed. They don’t charge team fees, they don’t get paid, and they don’t have any kids on the team. A few sponsors help cover the cost of some of the hotel rooms and food and gas when they travel. But these guys sacrifice their weekends to focus on these players … humbly offering their time and talents.”
Anyone interested in Team Swish can email Scruggs at firstname.lastname@example.org.