You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

His young cousin died from gun violence. How tragedy helped bring his hoops team closer.

The Charlotte Observer logo The Charlotte Observer 2/27/2020 By Langston Wertz Jr., The Charlotte Observer

When 27-year-old Ty Johnson became head coach at Cox Mill High School last summer, he thought was taking over a reclamation project. Cox Mill had won two of the past three N.C. 3A state basketball championships, but all five starters graduated, including McDonald’s All-American and Duke freshman Wendell Moore.

Back then, Johnson — the son of a longtime high school basketball coach — couldn’t have foreseen all the winning, all the joy, and even the tragedy, that would unfold for his players.

“I thought it was going to be a complete rebuild,” Johnson said. “But we got here and these kids had a chip on their shoulders, from the first time I walked in, in July. Everybody said they’re not going to be any good. Everybody kept telling them, ‘Wendell is gone.’ They would go play pickup at the West Cabarrus Y and they’re saying, ‘Y’all are going to take some Ls.’”

Cox Mill players turned the taunts into motivation to work harder. They wanted to prove everyone wrong, so they focused more, Johnson said, and the Chargers started to realized that playing against elite competition every day in practice had left them better off than their friends on the rec court could have imagined.

“During workouts, when I saw everybody hoop, I knew that we could do this,” Jaquava Propst-Allison, the son of former AL Brown High star and NFL receiver Aundrae Allison, said. Propst-Allison, a 6-foot sophomore guard, was recently named South Piedmont 3A player of the year. “I was like, ‘We can make a run.’

A tragic loss from gun violence

Cox Mill began the season 4-0 before losing to Sweet 16 No. 1 North Mecklenburg. The Chargers were 11-2 after beating Gaston Day 87-51 at the Kings Mountain Christmas tournament Dec. 28.

On the way home, however, tragedy struck for Propst-Allison.

He was on the back of the bus, laughing with his teammates, when his phone buzzed with a text.

He immediately started crying.

His cousin, 13-year-old Avenanna Propst of Concord, had been shot during a drive-by shooting at the Concord Mills’ Dave and Busters. She died at the scene. Concord police said Avenanna was not an intended target and was not involved in the parking lot altercation that led to the shooting, which also injured two teen boys.

“That was hard,” Propst-Allison said. “I kind of think about that when I play. It motivates me. Man, I had just seen her. Every year, our family does a Christmas party at my grandpa’s house. We eat dinner, play games and sing, and she was there.

“That was the last time I talked to her.”

One of the first times coach Johnson sensed this group was different came in the summer. He kicked the team out of practice for poor effort and told them to go home. He and his staff wanted to see how they would handle it. The team’s two seniors, Bailey Gentile and Wesley Poindexter, pushed open the gym doors and led the team through a series of plays and sets, basically running practice, showing their dedication, while Johnson and his staff watched.

After their teammate lost a family member, Johnson saw that same type of leadership.

‘We love each other’

A few days after the shooting, John Anthony Baker, a junior guard, walked into practice with pink wristbands for his teammates to wear as a way to remember and honor Avenanna.

“He didn’t know,” Johnson said, pointing to Propst-Allison. “I didn’t know. (Baker) just showed up at the next practice. It was something player-led he wanted to do.”

Cox Mill has lost one time since then, when it fell, 77-63, to AL Brown on Jan. 28.

The Chargers went on to win the South Piedmont 3A regular-season championship, the conference tournament championship and beat Belmont’s Stuart Cramer High School 92-46 in a first-round playoff game this past Tuesday.

On Thursday, the Chargers (24-3) will play Winston-Salem’s Parkland High (22-4) at home in the second round of the playoffs. The game starts at 7 p.m.

It’s uncertain how far Cox Mill will go in the postseason, but Gentile said his team isn’t “taking a bunch of Ls” anytime soon.

“Culture is a big part of it,” Gentile said. “And we’re only going to go up. Next year, they only lose two of us.”

Propst-Allison said the key to his team’s success is simple: his teammates are much closer than a year ago, when he said the seniors kind of hung in one group and everyone else in another.

“This year,” he said, “we love each other. We have have fun in the locker room. We laugh, dance. I love every part of it. Being with this team actually makes me feel good. Even if I’m mad, I go to practice and there’s times when they make me happy.”

———

©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

Visit The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.) at www.charlotteobserver.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More From The Charlotte Observer

The Charlotte Observer
The Charlotte Observer
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon