Last season, Concord and Hopewell were two of the best teams in the state in their respective classes. The Titans finished 29-1, losing to Mount Tabor in the 4A state semifinals, their only loss of the year. Meanwhile, the Spiders finished 29-2, falling in the 3A state semifinals to Forestview.
This year, both teams will have to climb the ladder again and prove they are amongst the state's finest. Both start with high expectations, as the Titans are No. 1 in the Observer Sweet 16, while Concord is No. 9.
Hopewell will have to make their way through the brutal new I-Meck conference that includes a loaded West Charlotte team and archrivals North Mecklenburg and Vance.
"Every year, you have to work with a different group," Hopewell basketball coach Eric Davis said. "We've had our ups and downs so far, but we are coming along. We have to keep working and see what happens."
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Concord will have to weather a vicious nonconference schedule that includes Mount Tabor (twice), Lake Norman, Hopewell and Salisbury, who were a combined 148-5 last year.
"We hope that this (schedule) makes us better and tougher down the road," Concord basketball coach Scott Brewer said. "I think it will make us better in the long run."
After the best season in school history, the Titans return without point guard Brandyn Curry (Harvard) and three-year starter Alex Godette. But, Hopewell still boasts a wealth of talent in the backcourt, led by senior Adrian Addie (7 ppg) and Country Day transfer Earl McLaurin (7 ppg). Add in swingman Jordan Downing (16.5 ppg), who has committed to Davidson, and this could be one of the best groups in the state.
The Titans also have strength down low with forward DeMon Brooks (20 ppg), who committed to Howard, and is becoming a major force in the post. Center Bryce Hawkins, a second-year starter, is also solid (10 ppg).
The big difference against Concord may be their depth. Hopewell can go 8-10 deep every game with 6-foot-7 Elliott Pope, Michael Russell and Justin Avery, who all provide the "toughness" Coach Davis thinks his team needs.
Concord will try to run early and often, while Hopewell prefers a half-court game with a suffocating defense that gives up less than 50 points per game.
The Spiders have one of the toughest schedules in the state to begin the season, but they also have one of the most talented rosters, once it becomes complete.
Reigning South Piedmont player of the year Jacquise Moore, who just finished football, should be back to form soon, as well as point guard Kendall Knorr, who is finally clear to play after foot issues.
Toss in a true point guard in freshman Darren Black, a rapidly-developing post player in Jalen Cannady (16 ppg), and a shooter, Griffin Templeton (10.5 ppg), who will be getting more open looks and Concord will be dangerous.
Whether the Spiders can improve fast enough to take on a team like Hopewell is still a question. The Spiders already got a taste of the I-Meck conference in a tough loss to Lake Norman on Dec. 2.
They hope to get their team back on the right track with a huge win over one of the best teams in the state.