Sean Stevens in Davie Sports Hall of Fame

Published 9:14 am Thursday, August 9, 2018

Before Davie basketball opponents started taking Sean Stevens seriously, before he started assaulting the state record book, the 5-6 shooting guard was often mistaken for a bench player. Or the team manager. Or the water boy.

But once the ball was tossed up, opponents quickly understood who Sean Stevens was: The greatest 3-point shooter the state had ever seen from the year the NCHSAA adopted the long-range arc (1986-87) through the end of Stevens’ Davie career (2002).

It defied logic that he could be so awesome as a diminutive wing. He overcame his lack of height by having laser-like focus, $2-steak toughness and moving like a fly you could never swat no matter how big the swatter.

“I think we always told everyone when they announced starting lineups that I was 5-8 and 165 pounds,” Stevens said. “The honest answer is I topped out at 5-6 and 155.”

“He was a bulldog,” said Jim Young, Davie’s coach from 1997-98 through 2001-02 who is now retired in Wilmington. “The thing I hoped for most when I was coaching him was someone would knock him down or hit him. Because as soon as someone knocked him on his (butt), he would get so pissed off and you couldn’t beat him. He couldn’t wait to beat you. He could stick it in the hoop falling down backwards. And the madder he got, the better he played.”

Stevens, Kathy Grimes Januzelli (Class of 1964), Uly Grisette (1984) and Doug Illing (Davie’s all-time winningest football coach) are the newest members of the Davie High Athletic Hall of Fame. They will be honored before and at halftime of the Sept. 14 football game. The 1956 Mocksville High baseball team will also be inducted.

Stevens, 34, and his wife Alexandra live in Advance. They have two young children, daughter Scarlett (three) and son Jude (nine months).

Stevens’ amazing journey had humble roots. For North Davie’s seventh-grade team in 1996-97, he averaged a team-high 6.8 points for a 2-9 team. David Wooldridge was second at 5.4.

“I was real small in seventh grade,” Stevens said. “I was probably 5-foot and maybe 120 pounds soak and wet – if that.”

On the eighth-grade team, Stevens paced the 4-9 Wildcats with a 10.9 average. Justin Dotson (5.7) and Dan Sullivan (5.6) were next. Stevens offered a glimpse of things to come in the season opener, burning Chestnut Grove with 29 points and hitting five 3s in the 58-41 win.

“I hadn’t seen him shoot 3-pointers in practice,” coach Trish King said then. “He’s always been a penetrator. I was amazed.”

Although Stevens was North’s top scorer both years, those 24 games – and 18 losses – gave little indication of what would transpire on the Davie freshman team. His transformation into a scoring machine began in the summer of 1998. Young was preparing for his second Davie season, and he would orchestrate an ascent from 48 wins over 10 years to 77 wins during his five years.

“I went to (Davie’s) basketball camp that summer,” Stevens said. “I remember meeting coach Young and coach K (Derek Kurnitsky), and I felt really good about the system they had. It fit my skill set, which was speed, shooting and hard-nosed defense. We played really fast.”

Stevens exploded on the freshman league. He scored 37 in a 78-71 win over Reynolds. In the rematch at Reynolds, Davie faced a 14-point deficit in the third quarter. An under-the-weather Stevens willed the War Eagles to 65-51 victory with 27 points and 10-of-13 free-throw shooting.

“Sean called me the night before and said: ‘I’m sick as a dog. I don’t think I can play,’” said Kurnitsky, now the varsity coach at Orange Park High in Florida. “He had the flu. He looked bad at school (the next morning), but dadgummit Sean played. This was Sean’s Michael Jordan experience. I still talk about that today. I tell my guys they’re soft because Sean Stevens had 100 fever and beat Reynolds when they were loaded.”

While the only loss that year was 55-51 to Mt. Tabor, Davie got revenge at home, smacking the Spartans 52-35. The average score during an 18-1 joyride was 73-45. Stevens averaged 20.5 with explosions of 33, 37 and 36 points. Andrew Daywalt (11.5) and Jason Hogue (10.8) were solid contributors.

“It really changed my outlook and my future in basketball,” Stevens said.

“I still can’t believe Younger let him stay on the freshman team,” Kurnitsky said.

Leo Brunelli’s 1999-00 JV team rode Stevens’ cape to a 9-1 start, the only loss 83-81 in overtime to West Charlotte. Stevens put up 40 points and six 3s in a 78-61 win over Hickory. Brunelli’s bunch went 9-2 with Stevens and his 26.6 average. But after Young called him up, the JV dropped six of 10 games without its go-to man.

“(The call-up to varsity) was a little emotional for me,” Stevens said. “At the beginning I wanted to make varsity. When I started on JV, I formed a good bond with coach Brunelli and the guys. Part of me wanted to keep playing JV, but I really looked up to some of those guys on the varsity, particularly Dominic (Graham) and Duane (Phillips), and getting to play with them was definitely a special moment for me.”

At the midpoint of the 1999-00 season, Stevens joined a team that would restore glory to Davie basketball. He averaged 4.1 points in his first six varsity games. He eventually acquired the confidence that told him he belonged, averaging 11 in the last five games.

After dispatching Page, 84-79, in the first round of the 4-A playoffs, the War Eagles made history at Freedom. Not only did they win a second-round game in the NCHSAA playoffs for the first time ever, they broke the school record for wins. The 20-3 mark from 1968-69 had stood for 30 years. Behind 41-37 to the Patriots, Stevens gave Davie a jolt with a 3-pointer. A 12-0 run ensued and Davie won going away, 70-58.

“That’s the man right there,” Phillips, pointing to the little sophomore, said then. “He hit the big shot.”

While Phillips racked up a triple-double with 28 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, Stevens chipped in 11 points.

“That was a game I’ll never forget,” Stevens said. “Me and Duane still talk about that game when we see each other.”

Earlier in the season, Davie pulled off a monumental win over powerhouse Reynolds, ending six years of futility against the Demons. But Reynolds stopped Davie’s record-setting ride, 82-69, in the sectional final at Joel Coliseum. (Stevens had 14 in that one.) Reynolds went on to claim the state title. Davie went 1-3 against Reynolds and 20-3 against everybody else. The dynamite backcourt of Phillips and Graham averaged 25.1 and 16.5 points, respectively.

“Younger built my confidence and it took off from that summer (before my junior year),” Stevens said. “His system catered to anyone who could shoot real well and who could play really hard-nosed defense.”

Sure, the stage was set for a big junior year – but it proved to be much more than that. Stevens instantly became a long-range phenomenon. In the 2000-01 opener, a 90-66 win over Alexander Central, he had seven 3s and 40 points. In a 102-41 mismatch against Towanda (Pa.), he had nine 3s and 39 points. He had 38 in a 105-71 trouncing of Alexander Central. In a 92-73 Central Piedmont Conference Tournament runaway, he torched South Rowan with 43 points and nine triples. Davie finished 15-10 behind Stevens’ 23.1 average. Edin Zajnovic (14.7 points), Sullivan (10.2 points, 7.7 rebounds), Rod Tenor (7.2 points, 9 rebounds) and Hogue (7 points, 6 assists) were key pieces of the puzzle.

Stevens is quick to give credit to unselfish teammates.

“I had a group of teammates who allowed me to excel,” he said. “I tried to tell the media after every game that it was all about them. When you’re running an offense like Indiana that was catered toward the shooter going corner to corner, that was the first option. Micah (Garner) and Jason Hogue were getting me passes. And without the guys who were setting screens, I wouldn’t have had open shots. I wouldn’t have broken state records or put in the points that I did. My parents told me to make sure I give credit where credit is due.

“Rod was one of the best screeners I ever had. My senior year we had a whole bunch of them. Dan Sullivan, Chris Stein and Luke Phelps – all three of them could set blistering screens, especially Stein. He liked the dirty work.”

In 2001-02, Stevens fulfilled expectations with a massive senior season, averaging 23.8 points and setting state records. He and Nemanja Kreckovic, an exchange student from Yugoslavia, formed a devastating backcourt. Kreckovic poured in 41 on two occasions and averaged 22.2. Sullivan, a blue-collar banger, registered 11 double-doubles in points and rebounds.

“We hosted Kreckovic at my house, so he was basically my brother that year,” Stevens said. “He could fill it up.”

In a 113-85 win over South Iredell, the War Eagles established a new single-game scoring standard. They broke it in the next meeting with South, winning 117-77 in the CPC Tournament. In that 40-point win, Stevens had 43 points on 11-of-21 3-point shooting – not to mention seven assists and no turnovers.

He has savored the memory of colliding with Chris Paul when he was a junior at West Forsyth. The Titans beat Davie by 13 and 14, but in the matchup in Clemmons, Stevens outscored the current NBA star 24-16.

“In the third quarter (at Davie), they had a (double-figure) lead and we had to drop out of our zone,” he said. “I immediately said: ‘I’ve got Chris.’ I drew three charges on him in a row. He likes to push off with that off arm and I knew it. I did a little acting job on the first one. He got a little upset about it. On the second and third ones, they were legit pushes. I’ll never forget that sequence. He’s a good guy and I really enjoyed playing against him.”

In nonconference action on Jan. 30, 2002, Davie hosted the defending 3-A champion, High Point Andrews. A legendary game unfolded before a sparse crowd.

“This was a nonconference game on a Wednesday in the middle of the conference season,” Stevens said. “So the stands weren’t full at all.”

The Red Raiders rocked Davie 43-29 in the first half. “They had two kids (Will Price and Steve Gillespie) who were incredible players,” Stevens said. “It was a halftime speech I’ll never forget. Coach Young absolutely fired us up. We came out on a mission in the second half.”

The War Eagles scored a ridiculous 66 points in the second half, wiped out a 12-point deficit in the fourth and escaped 95-90. Stevens’ numbers are frozen in Davie history: 43 points and 12-of-24 3-point shooting. He had 43, two shy of Dwayne Grant’s school record, despite a goose egg in the second quarter. He broke the state record for 3-point makes in a game while tying the mark for 3-point attempts. He had 31 in the second half, including back-to-back triples to tie the score at 90. Kreckovic had 14 points and 13 assists. Sullivan, whose three-point play provided a 93-90 lead at :57, finished with 22 points and 10 boards.

“What made Sean’s points even more impressive is it wasn’t like we were way ahead and playing a team that just let him shoot,” Young said then. “We were behind and had to have those points, so that put even more pressure on him.”

Stevens can vividly recall the record-setter.

“Micah found me in the corner,” he said. “If I held my fist up, I would go back to that same side instead of going to the opposite corner. I put my fist up, so he knew I was coming back. He got it to me perfectly, we got a good screen on Gillespie who was guarding me and that was my 12th one. That is a game I will certainly remember forever and tell my kids about.”

The War Eagles finished 16-9, achieving three straight winning seasons for the first time since 1971-72.

“Opponents thought he was cocky,” Young said. “But the way I looked at it, he was confident. The opponents all disliked him, but they would have picked him first to play on their team. They just didn’t like to see him come in the gym against them because at any time he was going to explode for 20 to 30 points.”

Oops, almost forgot. Stevens was good enough at soccer to start on varsity as a freshman, sophomore and junior. As a sophomore, he scored a team-high 13 goals. As a junior, he helped Davie go 10-10-1 to match the then-record for wins. Matt Moser starred with 20 goals and Stevens knocked in 10.

“I was a better defensive player, to be honest with you,” he said. “My senior year I was so into basketball. I felt like that was my future. I wanted to focus that fall on basketball, and I was in the gym every single day. So I opted not to play soccer my senior year.”

The end of 2002 was the end of an era. Young took his 462 career wins to the girls’ side at East Rowan so he could coach his spectacularly gifted daughter, Brittini. Stevens walked away as one of the best there ever was.

• He was All-CPC and All-Northwest in 2001 and 2002.

• Grant owns the most 40-point games with five and a record 45 from a game in 1977. Stevens, who reached 43 three times, is second with four 40-point games.

• Grant authored 21 30-points games. Phillips and Stevens are tied for second with 14.

• When Stevens graduated, he ranked third with 1,232 career points, trailing only Grant (2,007) and Phillips (1,544). Stevens currently ranks sixth.

• Stevens’ state record for 3s in a game has been broken, the current record sitting at 14. He remains the only War Eagle to ever hit 11 in a game. He nailed seven or more triples in 15 different games.

• When he converted 127 of 308 3-point tries (41 percent) as a senior, he surpassed Reidsville’s Robbert Doggett, who made 123 in 1990. That state record has also been eclipsed – Stevens is now sitting in fifth place – but it remains a Davie benchmark. He still holds the No. 2 spot for seasons 3s with 105 his junior year.

• Drew Absher (267) and Stevens (248) are 1-2 for Davie in career 3s. Today, Absher is tied for seventh in the state in that category. (We note that Absher played in 39 more varsity games than Stevens.)

“When you took a look at him, you figured he was probably a role player,” Young said. “If you had five Sean Stevens, you’d never lose a game. If he was six inches taller, he’d probably still be playing in the NBA. He could handle the ball. He was quick. He could run forever.”

Stevens’ next step was Division-II, playing for Pfeiffer as a freshman in 2002-03 and spending a good portion of the season in the starting lineup. Then he decided to hang up the sneakers and transfer to UNC Charlotte.

Sixteen years have passed since Davie fans were oohing and aahing at a 5-6 kid who didn’t back down, carried a swagger and bombed in 1,152 points in two seasons. His success stemmed from one extraordinary ability.

“If he was on the court, he was within his range,” said Tim Kenney, who assisted Young. “Anywhere past halfcourt was his range. One game in particular I remember. We were playing Reynolds during the heyday of Reynolds. We came across halfcourt and I swear Sean was maybe three steps across halfcourt and he drills one from the right wing way up top. Howard West calls timeout. I think it was (Travis) Holcomb-Faye who was guarding Sean. Holcomb-Faye takes his hands and points toward the spot where Sean shot from. I’ll never forget this. Howard goes: ‘I don’t care if he goes to the bathroom, you go with him.’ When he was zoned in, you could forget it.”