A wide smile forms on the face of Patrick Henry High School girls basketball coach Tommy Thomas when asked what makes his star player, Cadence Wilmoth, so special.
He recalls a photo he once saw of Wilmoth – a snapshot from a Rebels’ game that is burned into his memory – that captures the true essence of a true competitor.
“She was lying on the floor, her knee was bleeding, you could see some blood coming off her elbow where she had just dove after a ball,” Thomas said. “She had the ball and she was just sitting there smiling. She goes after everything. She comes out of every game with bruises, but she doesn’t care about that. She’s all about the game.”
Photo by Earl Neikirk, Bristol Herald Courier
Wilmoth has been on the top of her game during the last four seasons, marked by her 1,961 career points, numerous accolades and the scholarship she signed to further her career at NCAA Division II Mars Hill (N.C.) College.
But beyond the gaudy statistics and countless honors, there is more.
What motivates and drives Wilmoth to be the best?
A passion for the sport she plays, a tireless work ethic, an intense desire to compete and a stubbornness to not cede anything in the heat of competition.
“I think I’ve always been that way,” Wilmoth said. “I’ve always been very competitive and I really hate to lose.”
A girl that comes across as quiet and sweet off the court – she was crowned as the school’s homecoming queen back in the fall – can be downright fierce for those 32 minutes that a game is being played.
“I really am pretty shy when I’m not playing,” Wilmoth said. “On the floor I have to be aggressive and do what’s best for my team.”
She hopes the best includes another postseason run to the state tournament. Last season she starred as the Rebels made it all the way to the VHSL Group A, Division 2 championship game before losing to Radford.
Crunch time comes again on Wednesday night when PH hosts George Wythe in the first round of the regional tournament.
“I love it,” Wilmoth said of postseason play. “You’re not guaranteed another game. Now that I’m a senior, I have to give everything I have or won’t get to play anymore.”
Patrick Henry posted a decisive win over Holston last Wednesday in the semifinals of the Hogoheegee District tournament thanks to a 30-point, 18-rebound performance from Wilmoth.
But for Wilmoth another task was at hand. After exiting the locker room, she pulled out her cellphone and immediately went to work punching the keypad and firing off a text message.
She had to find out how her beloved University of North Carolina Tar Heels had fared against Atlantic Coast Conference rival Miami.
“If you talk to her, she’s going to talk basketball,” Thomas said. “She’s a student of the game. You can talk to her right now and she’ll tell you who’s playing tonight. … She loves the game.”
Wilmoth has no problem in admitting that she is addicted to basketball.
“If it’s a good game I’ll be watching it,” Wilmoth said. “Pretty much all the time.”
Wilmoth got to see her first game on the Chapel Hill campus on Dec. 29, a 100-62 Carolina victory over Elon. (“It was exciting,” she said.)
She is fascinated by the emergence of overnight sensation Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks (“I think just how he handles himself is amazing. He’s so humble.”) and don’t dare bring up UNC’s loss to Duke a couple of weeks ago at the hands of a 3-pointer by Austin Rivers. (“Ugh, yes it was awful. I walked into Spanish class the next day and the first thing somebody said was Austin Rivers.”)
Here’s another piece of evidence to note Wilmoth’s obsession: When she was playing on a seventh-grade team and the time came to pick out jersey numbers, there weren’t many options left so she went with No. 22.
It couldn’t have worked out better. That happened to be the number of one of her favorite Tar Heels at the time – Wayne Ellington.
Patrick Henry saw its 19-game winning streak come to an end with a 60-55 setback to Chilhowie on Friday night in the finals of the Hogoheegee tournament. Wilmoth scored just six second-half points and fouled out in what was, for her, a subpar performance.
But she wasn’t a sore loser.
“I think we have to give a lot of credit to Chilhowie,” Wilmoth said. “They hit their shots and executed. I think that game was sort of a wake-up call. I think it might have helped us more than it hurt us. It’s like a jumpstart.”
Wilmoth’s response was to just go back to work and she spent most of the weekend in the gym polishing her post moves and hoisting up jumpshots.
“She’s probably one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever played with,” said Patrick Henry point guard Kasey Uecker. “She has a lot of fun and is a great leader on the team. She’s a great person, great to be around. … She’s very focused. She’s great at it and she loves it.”
For Thomas, Wilmoth provides the perfect example of what it takes to be a star. Make that picture perfect.
“Every day she’s the last one to leave the gym,” Thomas said. “But it’s been like that since she was a freshman.”