It’s taken Ardrey Kell’s Tate Small – and the Knights’ basketball team – a little while to come around, but, man, look at them now.
Small, a 6-foot-5 senior, comes from an athletic family, Ardrey Kell coach Mike Craft said. His dad played football at Duke and his mom played volleyball for the Blue Devils. Small is the youngest of five. One of his older sisters played sports at Tennessee; another played at Georgia Southern. His brother, Shane, who played baseball at Providence High, also played at East Carolina.
Small struggled, though, trying to play basketball.
“This kid got cut as a seventh- and eighth-grader at Community House Middle School, and as the kids tell it, he was horrible,” Craft said. “But he wouldn’t give up. He’s kept working at it. He made the (Ardrey Kell) junior varsity as a freshman and didn’t play that much. He made the JV as a sophomore and didn’t play that much.”
All the while, Small kept working. He made varsity last year as a junior, slogging through a 9-16 season on a team that only had one senior. But as the season wore on, Craft noticed that Small, and his young lineup, were beginning to show signs of progress.
There was a string of close games and a win over Southwestern 4A stalwart East Mecklenburg that left Craft thinking positively about this season. The team had what he called “a great summer,” and now Craft’s Knights are 4-0, one game away from tying the best start in school history, which came three years ago.
Ardrey Kell plays at Union County rival Weddington Wednesday.
“All these kids played last year and we took our lumps,” Craft said. “We knew we had a lot of experience coming back and we felt if we didn’t have any injuries we could have a good year.”
Ardrey Kell’s four wins include a 59-54 upset of preseason Sweet 16 No. 5 Harding on Harding’s home floor Nov. 20.
Sophomore Steven Santa Ana, a 6-2 guard, is averaging 20 points per game. He tied Justin Cheek’s school record with six 3-point shots made against Marvin Ridge, and Santa Ana’s 25 points against Charlotte Catholic last week were the most by a Knight since Cheek was a senior three years ago. Against Catholic, Santa Ana made 11-of-13 free throw attempts.
“He’s scoring in a variety of ways,” Craft said.
Newcomer Jonathan Freund, a 6-3 post player, missed last season with injury, but Craft said he understands the team’s system. Junior Markel Pollard, a 6-4 wing, played on former North Carolina all-ACC guard Jeff McInnis’ 16-and-under Team Charlotte AAU team which played for a national championship last summer. Pollard has become Ardrey Kell’s defensive stopper.
Craft said it’s a true group effort.
“They talk about team all the time,” Craft said. “It’s not a selfish group to be around. They work hard. They make good grades. They don’t get into trouble. We’re having fun.”
Small, who carries a 4.5 GPA, is averaging 14 points, seven rebounds and three blocks. He’s come a long way from the guy who couldn’t make his middle school team.
“He’s shooting 48 percent from (3-pont range),” Craft said, “but I wouldn’t let him shoot at the beginning of the year. But he kept making them in practice. I guess I’m like (Davidson) coach (Bob) McKillop, I won’t let them shoot from there until they earn their license. Well, he’s earned his license.”
Wertz: 704-612-9716; twitter: @langstonwertzjr
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