By Marc Pruitt
Derrick Partee knew that coaching basketball in high school was going to be part of his future.
“For my senior yearbook, I wrote in there that I wanted to be a high school basketball coach,” Partee said. “I’m doing what I always wanted to do.”
Partee is now in his sixth season as the coach at Greensboro Smith and had led the Golden Eagles on a steady ascension.
Smith powered through the tough Piedmont-Triad 3-A Conference this season to both the regular season and conference tournament championships, finishing the regular season at 23-3 and 11-1 in conference play.
The Golden Eagles secured the No. 2 overall seed in the West Regional of NCHSAA 3-A state tournament that starts Tuesday at home against West Caldwell.
“We think it’s a huge accomplishment, because I think the general consensus around the state—not just us—is that we have the toughest league, regardless of class” Partee said. “Every team in our conference went to the state tournament last season. And some of them, like us, dropped down from Class 4-A.” It’s a monster conference for sure.”
Southwest Guilford won the 4-A state title last year. Mount Tabor, which has also been a 4-A school for a long time, is always a perennial power. North Forsyth has had deep runs in the 3-A playoffs in recent years. Dudley has been a traditional power as a 4-A school, and Western Guilford and Parkland were also playoff teams last season.
“Every night was tough,” Partee said. “You knew you had to earn your wins in league play this season. It didn’t matter who we played, we knew we were in for a fight every time we stepped on the floor.”
Smith is the first head coaching job that Partee has had after serving as an assistant at Dudley under David Price for 13 years, which included winning a state title as a player during his senior year of 1996.
“We had Brendan Haywood (played at UNC and the NBA) and Vincent Whitt (played at Clemson) and Braxton Williams (who played football at Clemson) on that team,” Partee recalled. “Playing for Coach Price taught me so much about the game. I learned a great deal from him.”
Partee said that a lot of what he has brought to his program at Smith was modeled after things he picked up as a player and as an assistant coach under Price.
“He was a player’s coach, and that’s the biggest thing I took from him,” Partee said. “And that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with wins and losses. We try to make sure everything is centered around our kids developing as young men as well as basketball players. I want to be sure that I’m also developing their character. There is so much about coaching that doesn’t take place on the court, and I want to be sure our kids are getting that overall experience.”
Partee won 16 games in his first season when he was trying to establish his culture for the program. He said it was challenging because of the adjustment period of getting to know his new players.
“Not that it was terrible when I got here, but it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for,” Partee said. “I tell kids all the time that I’m a gym rat, and if they aren’t gym rats, they’re probably not going to make it with me. My first year, I had eight returning seniors on the roster that played the year before. They weren’t gym rats, and I ended up cutting five of those guys. That was kind of the statement moment for the program. They got the message that if I was going to put in the work during the offseason, they were going to put in the work in the offseason. So, I had to establish that culture of putting in hard work and that the guys must have character. I think we’ve finally turned the corner on that, and that is related to the seniors we have on the roster.”
Two of those seniors—Jacob Crutchfield and Jaylan Gainey—have been four-year varsity players. Two more—Isaiah Bigelow and Terence Burns—have played varsity for three years.
“Their experience for us developing as a program has been huge,” said Partee, who is sitting on 99 career wins. “I think they helped us turn the corner. When they got here, they already kind of knew who we were as people and coaches and were already ‘bought in’. Everyone behind them has seen the culture grow from their example. They’ve helped us build this program in the footprint that I wanted to establish here.”
Partee also said that his two assistant coaches have been instrumental in the program’s success. The Golden Eagles won 14 games in 2013-14; 13 in 2014-15; 15 in 20-15-16; and 18 in 2016-17.
“Coach (Clarence)Waddell has been here with me since I got here,” Partee said. “His senior year of high school was my first year coaching at Dudley, so I used to coach him too. He knows what I expect. And coach (Irvin) Turner started with us last year and has been a great addition. I tell all my assistants the same thing I tell my players—if you aren’t a gym rat, you’re probably not going to fit in with me.”
Does Partee have a soft spot when Smith takes on Dudley, his alma mater and a place that he still holds in high regard?
“I’m super-competitive, so it’s not that big of a deal for me,” Partee said. “Every game, every school—that’s a rivalry to me. Dudley isn’t any different than Mount Tabor or North Forsyth or anyone else. Dudley will always be a special place to me, but I don’t have any problem when we beat them. We’ve got things going in the direction we want them to go in here and that’s special, too.”