The Concord's girls' basketball team has been dominant in the last few years, going 40-2 in the past three seasons in the South Piedmont Conference while winning three back-to-back conference titles and the 2008 3A state championship.
With their recent success, tradition and returning talent, the Spiders once again enter the season with a bull's-eye on their back, as conference teams look to end the Lady Spiders' SPC supremacy.
"We're not afraid to accept the challenge of being great - that's what we do here," said coach Angela Morton. "We break our huddle with, 'We play for championships,' and I tell the kids not to be afraid of failure and to set their expectations high, so we feel that until anybody beats us we're the favorites to win the SPC."
The Spiders return four starters - Jasmine DeBerry, Jhemelia Edwards, Mariah Black and Alleson Briggs - from last year's 24-6 team that made it to the third round of the state playoffs.
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Although Concord suffered a big loss in all-conference guard Nyshia Hammonds, who led the team in scoring last season, the team will have a deep pool of talented guards. Morton has high goals for this team, despite lacking size.
"I still think that we have to be one of the favorites to make it to a state championship game," said Morton. "We're not afraid to say that; we're up for the challenge."
The senior class will be key in how close the Spiders get to that goal.
Black, DeBerry and Edwards are 82-13 as varsity starters in their first three seasons, so their experience and skill will be depended upon heavily.
"They're everything a coach would want," said Morton. "They bring intangibles to this team."
DeBerry provides leadership for the Spiders, while Black, the tallest on the squad at 5-foot-10, is a big-time defender who can play any position. Edwards is the team's top returning scorer after averaging 13 points, six rebounds and five assists per game last season.
Morton said the team's lack of height may translate into a positive, as this year's squad is the fastest team she's ever had in her 13 seasons coaching.
"I think I'm known for post-oriented basketball, but this year we don't have that, so we've had to adapt," she said. "We've always played fast, but this year our speed in just unbelievable. We do things in practice that I'm amazed by."
DeBerry, one of the team's speediest players, agrees. "We're the fastest team in Cabarrus County," she said.
Morton hopes that translates into high-scoring performances.
Concord has bought into the idea of getting in shape, running miles and conditioning drills often in practice. That may have a lot to do with Morton stripping everything away from her team - from the chairs and TVs in the locker room to past year's trophies, and even basketballs, until they earn them.
"We have to complete challenges to get valuables back," said Black.
They started the season without using basketballs - practices consisted solely of non-shooting drills - but have slowly gotten some back.
"This team has bought into the fact that it's going to take something extra for us to keep our tradition this year," said Morton. "They're off to a good start - they're in unbelievable shape for this time of year."
Edwards explains how the team's closeness will also help them along the way. "We have chemistry," she said. "We have a big bond, everybody loves everybody and we look out for each other."
The Lady Spiders know teams will give them their all throughout the season.
"The target is always on our back," said DeBerry. "Everybody wants to beat Concord, so we know we have to play hard every night."
Morton believes her older players are used to feeling that pressure and have learned to thrive under it.
"They expect everybody's best shot and honestly are disappointed when they don't get it," she said.
Morton attributes the recent success of her program to the talent and depth she's been lucky to get. That depth allows her to run an aggressive defense.
"It's not just one, two or three stars; we've had talent throughout our program," said Morton, adding the amount of work her teams put in during the offseason has also helped.
"All the extra things that the kids are willing to do and sacrifice to be a part of this program is what makes us special."
Despite the high goals, Morton doesn't want her players to worry about what happens along the way.
"We've been really successful, but I talk to them all the time about not getting caught up in wins and losses and championships," she said.
"Our journey together is what's important. I truly believe that."