By Tim Chambers
Banner Elk, North Carolina is less than an hour away from Elizabethton, but getting there has been a long road for one senior Cyclone. Justin Wandell decided to take his talents to the next level by signing a basketball scholarship with Lees-McRae College on Friday afternoon at the high school.
The standout point guard averaged almost 16 points per game this season and shot a sizzling 82 percent from the free-throw line while leading Elizabethton to a 20-7 mark. Wandell missed the first few weeks of the regular season with an ankle injury, but made his presence felt the minute he returned.
He was selected to the All-Watauga Conference team and All-Carter/ Johnson County team in addition to gaining honorable mention status for the all-state squad.
Wandell said that playing college basketball had always been a dream of his. Getting to do that for the Bobcats just made it come true. “It’s an awesome feeling to get an opportunity to continue my hoops dream that I’ve had since I was seven years old,” said Wandell. “It was tough going through all the coaching changes, but everything happens for a reason. It all worked out for me.”
The senior showed his savvy on the court throughout the season in addition to being able to adjust his style of play.
He followed up a 25-point effort against Morristown West with an 8-assist, 5-steal effort two games later. That type of play was vital for head coach Len Dugger after taking over the boys’ coaching job only two games into the season.
“I knew that I had to win him over in order to make the thing workable,” said Dugger. “He was glue, a young man that became our leader from day one. The other guys had trusted him and that was important. I can’t say enough about the type of young man he is and his work ethic. He came to practice every day to get better. He didn’t second guess things; he just came with that workmanlike attitude.”
That type of work ethic propelled ’Betsy to a 20win season before its upset loss in the first round of the district. Instead of sulking, he continued working hard during the offseason. Now he gets a chance to play for head coach Scott Polsgrove’s NCAA Division II Bobcats.
“Coach sat me down one on one and sold me on Lees-McRae,” said Wandell. “We talked about work ethic and what was expected. They seem to like my talents and they know that I will work hard for them. Up there you are a true student-athlete. I love the way that they run the floor.”
Dugger played college basketball for four seasons at Gardner-Webb University after graduating from Hampton High School. He feels like the Wandell will be successful at the college game.
“It’s his desire to learn and get better that makes him so special,” added Dugger. “He showed that by improving his defense on the ball as the year went on. He became an excellent defender. He can shoot the three and he’s effective going off the dribble and finishing around the basket, plus he’s got a good pull up jumper that’s hard to defend.”
In addition to those qualities, Dugger added: “Justin is a competitor, he has a passion for the game. He’s a teammate first, and any coach will appreciate that. He was definitely our rock.”
Dugger was quick to add that he thinks some more could join Wandell off next year’s squad in the college ranks. He wanted to thank all of them for what they were able to accomplish.
“This team was a close-knit group and Justin was their leader,” continued Dugger. “I don’t think that he’ll be the only one of them playing college. They’ll be a few that will probably get that opportunity after next season.”
Wandell said he will always cherish the memories and special bonds he made as a student-athlete at Elizabethton.
“I thought it would never end,” said Wandell. “Every moment spent with my coaches and teammates were extra special. I want to thank them all especially Coach Dugger, coaches Eddie Carver, Richard Hyder, Bobby Chambers, Tony Gordon, Chuck Babb and all the others.”
He also thanked his parents, Ken and Sheila Wandell, and his older sister Emily. He said the three have been his biggest supporters and role models.
“I’m very thankful for the opportunity he’s getting,” said Sheila. “If he needs chicken noodle soup, then I’m close enough to get it for him.
Added Ken: “We pretty much let him decide where he wanted to go. When we come back from Newberry he began talking about Lees-McRae and wanting to go there. It’s great for me because I can make all the home games and not have to drive three or four hours.
Justin Wandell will join former Cyclone player Steve Hardin, who is an assistant coach for the Bobcats.
“I can’t wait to get on campus and starting working,” Wandell said. “They’re looking for me to play the two guard, but I’m willing to accept any role they throw at me.”