The First Assembly girls' basketball team is having a fine season, thanks to a couple of players who played for the Eagles' biggest rivals at one time.
Senior guard Paige Whitaker is in her second year with the Eagles after being a starter for three years at Charlotte's Hickory Grove Baptist Christian School. Freshman center Paris Johnson played as an eighth-grader last year at Northside Christian Academy.
Together, they have helped First Assembly to a 9-2 (through Jan. 10) start, and the Eagles are on track for their best finish since 2005 when they were co-conference champs and reached the semifinals of the state playoffs. Whitaker is averaging 15 points, four rebounds and 4.5 steals, and Johnson posts 12 points and 10 rebounds a game.
Whitaker, who also attended Northside in kindergarten and first grade, was coming into her own just as Hickory Grove was coming into its own as a program. She has started on the varsity since eighth grade.
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After her sophomore season, Whitaker's parents felt she needed a change of scenery and enrolled her at First Assembly.
"I did not want to leave Hickory Grove," Whitaker said. "I pitched a fit to be honest. I knew of First Assembly's strong athletic program, with football and all, so (I thought) it wouldn't be a huge letdown."
Whitaker knew of First Assembly through direct competition as well. In her freshman and sophomore years, First Assembly and Hickory Grove took turns knocking each other out of the conference tournament.
While transferring to First Assembly last year was a step back in terms of team success, Whitaker flourished. With a couple of its own new players, Hickory Grove won the 3A private/independent schools state championship. With the Eagles, Whitaker averaged 16 points and was named all-conference and all-state, neither which she achieved at Hickory Grove.
First Assembly finished 15-12 last year and lost just one senior to graduation. With the core coming back, a couple of new transfers, including Johnson, filled out the squad.
After attending Charlotte public schools, Johnson spent her seventh- and eighth-grade years at Northside Christian. First Assembly coach Bill Middlebrooks her talent while playing both at Northside, where she averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds as an eighth-grader and on an opposing AAU team.
"We beat (Northside) twice, but we had to double-team her," said Middlebrooks. "We kept someone in front of her and someone in back of her and limited her touches.
"I had seen her at an AAU tournament last summer and met her mother. I found out that her mom had called (First Assembly) about transferring."
Middlebrooks says that Johnson's dominating play inside has given the Eagles a different style of play.
"The offense and defense were set up last year for our inside players, but we didn't have the personnel for it. With Paris, that has opened the door for it and it has taken pressure away from other players, especially Kaycie Martin (a three-year starting forward)."
Johnson was reflecting on what it would be like to play against her former school prior to a Jan. 12 matchup with Northside UPDATE . Though the Knights have a new coach and around half the players from last year's team are gone, she noted that she remains in touch with some former teammates.
Last season, Whitaker says returning to play for a rival at her old school "was in my head the entire week." Whitaker dropped 23 points in her return, but Hickory Grove still swept the season series.
This season, the Eagles' first matchup with Hickory Grove ended in disappointment. Playing without another key transfer, injured senior guard Alexis Grant (15 ppg., 6 rpg., 4 spg.), the Eagles dropped a 50-33 decision and fell to 4-1 in the Metrolina Athletic 2A/3A Conference.
First Assembly will get another crack at each rival on Jan. 26 (Hickory Grove) and Jan. 29 (Northside Christian).