Sitting in an office tucked behind the South Mecklenburg High gym, C.J. Thompson and John Fitch think back to a game three years ago.Thompson was a freshman guard and Fitch was in his first year as the boy’s basketball coach at South Mecklenburg. The Sabres were in the middle of a 3-20 season and hosting Butler. Fans had come out for the girl’s basketball game and stayed through the first half of the boys game, until the Sabres got down by about 15. When Fitch and the team came back out of the locker room after halftime, almost no one was left in the gym. “There is one guy in the stands. One,” Fitch said. “The cheerleaders weren’t even in there. I thought I’d come back out in the wrong gym.” Thompson, a senior, and Fitch can laugh about the story now because things have changed at South Meck. The students are excited about this season. The Sabres have improved steadily since that year, culminating in a Southwestern 4A regular season conference championship last year and a trip to the third round of the state playoffs. Now South Meck wants to do it again. “I definitely feel more ready this year than last year,” said senior guard Chris Phifer. “Just making it that far makes me want to go back again and get more.” South Meck lost six seniors to graduation and one to transfer, but they gained something else last season: the confidence to win basketball games. After the 3-20 season, the Sabres went 12-16 the next year. In both seasons, they lost too many close games. Last year, South Meck started the season with a loss to Olympic, but then started winning the close games. The Sabres won a Christmas tournament and “the whole season changed,” Fitch said. South Meck went 17-2 in the last 19 games of the season and finished the year 23-6. “I think the biggest thing for them was believing they could do it,” Fitch said. “It was more of a mental thing for them, to see that they could do it because they hadn’t.” The only Sabre losses in those last 19 games were in the conference tournament to East Mecklenburg and a four-point overtime loss in the third round of the playoffs to West Charlotte, a team that made it to the 4A state championship game. Thompson said he feels more confident because of the way the team finished the season last year. “I’m more comfortable when it comes to game time because I feel like I’ve been there before,” Thompson, 18, said. “I know how it feels to be in big games. Like the biggest game I’ve ever played in was against West Charlotte, with the people and the crowd and I was able to calm down during it.” Six seniors graduated from last year’s team, including guard Carrington Kirkpatrick (12.8 points, 5 assists and 3 steals per game) and forward David Moore (8.3 points, 7.8 rebounds per game). The Sabres also lost 6-foot-9 senior forward Phillip Reed (4.7 points, 5.3 rebounds per game), who transferred to Northside Christian Academy.“This year we’re not as deep,” Fitch said. “We’ve got good players, don’t get me wrong. It’s just different, because there are so many new faces. It’s just a different atmosphere.” The team will be centered around three returning seniors: 5-9 guard Thompson, 6-foot guard Phifer and 6-9 forward Malcom Mathews. “This year it’s more on our shoulders so we’ve got to step up,” Phifer, 18, said.Thompson averaged 7.3 points and 3.8 assists for the Sabres last year and also plays football for the Sabres. Phifer, who Fitch said “flew kind of under the radar” last year, averaged 7.4 points. Mathews will be the force inside for South Meck. He averaged 12.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 6.1 blocks last year. This year, the offense will work through him. Fitch wants his team to get the ball inside to Malcom not only to score, but to free up shots for the guards. “Malcom is very smart with the basketball. He doesn’t average a lot of turnovers,” Fitch said. “When those three get in tandem I think that the other guys are going to fall into it.” Grant Hedberg, a 6-6 junior that played junior varsity last year, will join Mathews inside. He pairs solid post moves with good shooting ability. Earl Oliver, a 6-1 senior who also pitches on the baseball team, joins the team this year. “He uses his body,” Thompson said. “He’s a banger.” South Meck will also look to junior guard Noah Menke, who played junior varsity last year, junior Devonaire Johnson, who is in his first year playing in the program, 6-6 junior guard Michael Smith, and football players Alex Adams and Terrance Pearson to contribute this year. South Meck will come into the conference season prepared after a tough nonconference schedule that includes Harding, Vance, Mount Tabor and Charlotte Catholic. The season starts Nov. 20 at home against Central Cabarrus. And this time, the fans will be there. “The school, they’re ready so we’ve got to show them that we’re ready, too,” Thompson said.
Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012
South Meck builds on basketball success
Losing 6 seniors from last year will be the Sabres biggest challenge this season
South Mecklenburg seniors C.J. Thompson, left, and Chris Phifer will be key parts in the Sabres' quest to win the Southwestern 4A regular season conference championship for a second straight year.
South Meck coach John Fitch instructs his players during Wednesday night's Southwestern 4A tournament semifinals game played against E. Meck at Ardey Kell. South Meck grad John Fitch came to the school with one mission a few years ago: turn his alma mater into what it was when he won a state title there, a perennial power. South Meck is Southwestern 4A champ this year.Robert Lahser - email@example.com