The kids are all grown up.
As a first-year team three years ago, the freshmen on Jesse Carson High's boys' basketball team were taking their expected lumps. Now seniors, the Cougars are enjoying their finest season yet.
As they entered the final week of the regular season, they were threatening to win their first conference championship.
Now Carson is awaiting the first round of the state playoffs, which begin Monday. Its seeding depends on the results of last week's North Piedmont 3A Conference tournament (unavailable at press time).
The two coaches who founded Carson's basketball program were products of one of Rowan County's most historic teams. Cougars coach Brian Perry and assistant coach Dadrian Cuthbertson both logged bench time when West Rowan won 3A state championships in 2002 and 2003.
When Carson opened in 2006, its first 14 varsity players had played on nine different teams the year before, Perry figures. Besides the primary high schools Carson pulled from (South Rowan and East Rowan) and the feeder middle schools (China Grove and Southeast), the Cougars also had transfers from schools in Charlotte and West Virginia.
The Cougars started two sophomores and two freshmen: forward Darius Moose and point guard Brandon Ferrare. Carson endured the setbacks that the youth and inexperience of most first-year teams bring about.
"It's amazing when you open a school," Perry said. "You're surprised by the little things, like knowing the terminology. When you say 'jump to the ball,' they may not have heard that somewhere else."
Carson finished 3-21 that first year. But Perry was surprised that the team chemistry still didn't surface in year two. The Cougars finished 6-18 in 2007-08, though Moose emerged as a force, averaging 19 points as a sophomore.
Then in its third season, a couple of sophomores helped Carson become competitive. Wing guards Nick Houston and Cody Clanton elevated the team already led by Moose and Ferrare, and the Cougars finished 12-15. Moose, a muscular 6 feet 2 inches, averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds per game, and Houston posted averages of 10 points and 8 rebounds per game.
Several milestones gave Carson momentum coming out of the 2008-09 season. The Cougars beat West Rowan for the first time; they beat host Northwest Cabarrus for their first conference tournament victory; and they nearly won a first-round state playoff game at Gastonia Forestview, which later reached the state finals.
The Cougars were coming together, and Perry sculpted an offseason schedule to seal cracks in their chemistry. It started with "Camp Cougar," a three-day secluded retreat to the mountains, during which the team ate and slept together between three-a-day practices.
The team also played in the N.C. State Games and attended team camps at Pfeiffer and Gardner-Webb universities. Nine of this season's 12 varsity players attended every day of the summer get-togethers.
"The first three years, we were getting used to each other," Moose said. "This year, this group is really from Carson, not from South Rowan, West Rowan. We are from Carson. We just got a bond, like a family bond."
Joining Moose, Ferrare, Houston and Clanton in the starting lineup is senior guard Derrick Sewell. Junior Devon Higgins splits starts with Ferrare, and junior Zach Wagner is a top reserve.
Carson opened this season with six straight victories. It won its first nine North Piedmont Conference games before falling to West Rowan and South Rowan late in the season. As of Feb. 15, the Cougars (19-4 overall, 10-2 conference) were waiting to see whether they would tie West Rowan for the league title.
Moose, who has signed with NCAA Division II Brevard, leads Carson with averages of 19.8 points and 12.2 rebounds per game. Perry said he would finish his career as the fourth-leading scorer in Rowan County's history.
Before the late-season losses, Carson was ranked in The Observer's Sweet 16, a far cry from that 3-21 season three years ago. Now that the playoffs are starting, it's time to earn some more respect.