When John Fitch was a star basketball player at South Mecklenburg High in the 1970s, the Sabres were the top program in the state.
In 1976, Fitch played on a N.C. championship team. It was South's fourth state championship in seven years. The Sabres won three in a row from 1970-72.
Fitch, now 52, went on to play at Appalachian State for Bobby Cremins. Several of his teammates later became NBA draft picks. After starting his last three years at shooting guard for the Mountaineers, Fitch came back to Charlotte at 22 and took the same job he has now, as a salesman for New York Life Insurance.
He also watched from afar as his high school basketball team slowly began to fade from prominence. In 2004, he decided to come back as a volunteer coach. He felt like a lot of people had helped him when he was a youngster and he wanted to do the same.
Only, when he got back to South, he didn't like what he saw at his alma mater.
"I just didn't see a commitment from the players to the program," said Fitch, whose team played East Mecklenburg in the Southwestern 4A conference tournament semifinals Wednesday night. "They were just happy to have the jersey on. The tradition at the school had been lost."
Fitch was an assistant for three coaches in four years at South, including a 5-19 team in the 2008-09 season. Fitch got the head job three years ago. Then, the first thing he did was make sure his players knew about the tradition behind those red jerseys they put on every Tuesday and Friday night.
He didn't tell them about the '76 state champ he played on, but had them do research on the three-peat teams, and Fitch brought in the coach of those teams, Dave Price, to talk to the Sabres about pride and history and passion.
South went 3-20 in Fitch's first year. Injuries and academic casualties hurt that team. Last year, South finished 12-16 and made the playoffs for the first time in eight years. This year, with a monstrous front line of 6-9 junior Malcom Mathews, 6-9 junior Phillip Reed and 6-5 senior David Moore, the Sabres (21-4) won their first regular-season conference championship in nine years and had won eight straight games heading into the tournament semifinals Wednesday.
Last week, the Observer released its annual all-conference picks for area leagues, partly based on nominations from coaches. Fitch was named Southwestern 4A coach of the year.
"I did not expect it to happen this fast at all," Fitch said. "It's a surprise. It helps when you get players."
Besides his big three players, guys like senior guard Carrington Kirkpatrick, the team's leading scorer, have stepped up to have big years. And Fitch said reserves like 6-5, 230-pound Demetrius Dove have radically improved with a renewed devotion to offseason skill and strength workouts that Fitch is always preaching.
"Dove has made the other kids better," Fitch said. "When he was a ninth grader on JV, he was not very coordinated, but he's turned into one of our best players. He's tomahawk dunking now and has developed a nice jump shot. Unfortunately, he has those three guys in front of him, but he pushes the guys in practice, which is a big reason why we've done so well. Our (bench) guys in practice push our top guys most of the time."
Fitch said he and the Sabres have a long way to go and he wants to see where it all goes.
"I'll be here as long as they'll have me," he said. "Right now, I'm loving it. I plan on staying here as long as my health is good, I still enjoy it and everything keeps getting better. We're trying to put the pieces together. I have a great coaching staff and really good people outside the program who want to help. I think, I really do, that we're on the right track."