The Woody and Buzz of Green Hope men’s basketball

In the season opener against Athens Drive, Coach Ellis adjusts the defensive alignment during a timeout. Photo used with permission from Jay Kalidindi (25).
In the season opener against Athens Drive, Coach Ellis adjusts the defensive alignment during a timeout. Photo used with permission from Jay Kalidindi (’25).

For Green Hope’s varsity basketball Coach Alejandro Ellis, growing up revolved around two things: sports and friends. As a child, Ellis revealed, “The times were very different then. For us, sports were the only avenue for any entertainment or social time, nothing like all these devices that my son has now.” This love for the game extended as a player in high school, a coaching assistant in college and now sharing his love for the game for the past 13 years at Green Hope.

Throughout our varsity basketball Assistant Coach Gary Sawyer’s childhood, Sawyer was much less confident about what his future would hold. As the coin got flipped in the air, Coach Gary Sawyer’s life hung in the balance. He and his twin brother had two completely different job offers, and the coin was going to decide who got which job. He had an interesting path leading up to the coin flip, filled with lots of academic success as a youth, and after getting his job, he has had decades of coaching achievement.

Growing up in Roseboro, NC, one of the most important things to Ellis was wearing those big Lakewood High School letters across his chest. As a focused basketball athlete, Ellis felt, “It didn’t matter inside or outside, with 10 kids or with 2, basketball was always my sport and I was always playing it… When I got to high school, it was fun to compete at such a high level with his childhood friends. I had so much pride in playing basketball to represent my school and my community.” This pride has stuck with Ellis throughout his career, preaching to his athletes the importance of representing their school well. 

Just four hours away, and over a decade earlier, in Elizabeth City, NC, Sawyer and his twin were also always playing sports. Sawyer stated, “I played all three sports in high school, back then there was no soccer, no tennis, no wrestling, so I played football, basketball and baseball.” Growing up in a small town, pride for your hometown was huge. No matter the sport, Sawyer wanted to represent Northeastern High School.  He stated, “All of the players from my area went to the same high school, so whenever we would play other high schools, we had the mentality of us versus them. We had been playing together our whole lives, so we had the feeling that no one was going to beat our DNA, our neighborhoods.”

That tenacity from Sawyer, along with the athleticism from playing three sports, gave him lots of options coming out of high school. Sawyer recalled, “I had an opportunity to play football in college, for basketball, I had a smaller opportunity, but baseball gave me the chance to play high-level baseball.” Sawyer seized that opportunity as it gave him the chance to continue his athletic career. Sawyer said, “I was an East Carolina Pirate playing centerfield until I unfortunately got hurt, but I was still able to get the experience of playing as a Pirate.” Though Sawyer got hurt, he was still able to graduate in three and half years, setting him up for future success. 

Ellis’ athletic experiences in college also transformed his perspective on the game. Although Ellis had been playing basketball less than ever before, Ellis was not ready to give up his love for the game. As a prideful fan, Ellis was always watching college basketball, especially at his home of North Carolina Central University. The coaches noticed his dedication, granting him opportunities to “attend some practices and watch coaches put game plans together.” Ellis reflects, “I was able to learn from these coaches and really become a student of the game. I wanted to be a part of that, so I joined a program as a volunteer coach and I became excited about teaching kids the sport I love.”

In a home game versus Knightdale High School, Coach Ellis (standing) examines the floor and thinks about what adjustments are necessary. Photo used with permission from Jake Stone (’25).

After Ellis left NCCU, he felt compelled to expand on his volunteer coaching experience. He said, “I started off coaching middle school teams and even recreational leagues, but eventually worked my way up to a JV position at JF Webb High School, which is where I first started teaching.” While this time coaching gave Ellis incredible experience as both a coach and a teacher or mentor for his players, Ellis moved on to Green Hope for another JV position. “I served under head coach John Green before he left and I moved up to have my first varsity position ever at the high school level.” Coach Green and multiple other coaches had acted as role models for Ellis, a similar origin story to that of his partner, Gary Sawyer.

The coin flip with his twin brother allowed him to pursue a job in coaching. While playing summer ball during college, Sawyer made a connection with someone in the Northern Mountains of Virginia that would change his life. “While playing baseball I was able to meet Coach Myers, a high school coach who was a local legend. Coach Myers told me that when I graduated from ECU he could find a job coaching and teaching.” For the time, it was a big deal knowing that there was a job waiting for him after college. Sawyer continued, “In the early to mid-70s there were few jobs, but Coach Myers kept his word and said he had a job available for one of us.” It was decided that Coach Sawyer would teach and coach at Sherando High School, and his brother would work at Duke.

“Seniors” are the most rewarding part of coaching for Ellis. “Seeing them grow from their freshman or sophomore year and how they gain an appreciation for the game and then turn around and give it back to the underclassmen on JV, is my biggest joy each year.” All of Ellis’ efforts come full circle as Ellis grows close to these athletes not just for their senior year, but for the rest of their life.

With these seniors, however, comes some of the biggest adversity. As leaders of the team, seniors will oftentimes dictate the attitude, energy and flow of practices and games. Ellis finds it difficult to constantly get guys to pour everything they can into basketball, spending extra time to develop themselves and to grow as teammates within a system. “There’s a lack of love for the game and a lack of desire to put in more work… Trying to get guys to recognize that we have to develop certain skills and trying to effectively get that message across is a big adversity for me.” As passionate students of the game, both coaches have become impactful and successful, as long as guys are willing to make the same extra effort that both Coach Ellis and Coach Sawyer do.

By investing this extra effort in teenagers for 40 years, Coach Sawyer has seen almost everything there is to see. To him, the most challenging part of coaching is the highs and lows. Sawyer expressed this by stating, “In coaching, no matter what you do, you are going to have extreme highs like being carried around the locker room after games, I’ve had buckets dumped on me after victories, I’ve had kids laying on the floor with joy and happiness.” However, Sawyer also expressed the other side, saying “I’ve had games where kids sit in the locker room for 45 minutes to an hour after the game crying. [The players] just didn’t want to go home because they were so upset about the loss.” That contrast is sometimes a hard balance for Sawyer, as it is the coach’s job to keep the team steady and even-keeled.

Balance and adaptability have also dominated Ellis’ coaching history. Throughout the years spent at multiple high schools, Ellis has had all types of players and all types of teams. This year, Ellis has found joy and pride in the connections between all of his players. “They are all friends… having fun together off campus or outside of practice, there is a nice camaraderie.” One of the most important aspects of coaching is not developing skills or game plans, but connecting with the kids and ensuring that relationships between players are strong enough to balance the highs and lows of competitions. From the seniors to the sophomores, and even the athletes on JV, Ellis knows everybody more than gets along. “In a sport like basketball with five guys, if four guys don’t like each other it becomes hard to coach and to win, but this team doesn’t have that problem at all, they all genuinely like each other. Watching them succeed and have fun with each other has been the best part of coaching this year.”

Led by Head Coach Ellis (left) and Assistant Coach Sawyer (second from left), the Falcons are prepared for a home game. Photo used with permission from Jake Stone (‘25).

This success and fulfillment for the team has also stimulated Sawyer’s pride in Green Hope this year. Throughout the season, Sawyer has observed immense growth within each player that has come together to yield more success. After a disappointing loss to Athens Drive in the opening game, the Falcons defeated Athens in a nail-biting Christmas tournament game by one point to close out 2023. Sawyer reflected by stating, “The hard work the team put in between the two Athens games showed up, and it was rewarding to see the growth the team made.” 

Growth within the team is exactly what both coaches are looking for in 2024. In conference play, Green Hope will play each team twice, so the coaches anticipate consistent performances, where each player learns from his previous mistakes. In hopes of obtaining more wins in the second half of the season, Ellis and Sawyer plan to evaluate “the lessons we learned in November and December and see if they translate to January and February.” The Falcons, led by two passionate coaches, are prepared and excited for success during the second half of their season.

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