Being the only returning starter from last year's state championship team, Lake Norman's Brian Whalen had a lot of pressure on his shoulders.
The senior, a shooting guard whose main duty was to be a defensive specialist during the Wildcats title run, was expected to be the main man this year and take over ball-handling duties.
"I embraced that," said Whalen of his extra duties. "I like the pressure, I like being counted on to do more this year. ... It's fun being a leader and a scorer."
But Whalen admits he let the expectations get to him at the beginning of the season.
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Lake Norman coach Brandon Jolly said Whalen's struggles derived from him trying to figure out how to balance all of his new responsibilities.
"It's no fault of his," he said. "That's just a lot for anybody."
Whalen said he started the year not handling the ball as well as he should have, explaining that he played point guard in middle school and his freshman year on the Wildcats' JV squad.
"I like playing point, but I think I belong more at the '2' spot because I can shoot the ball, but at the same time I like having the ball in my hands," said Whalen.
In the last month, the 6-foot-1 guard has played better.
"He's getting accustomed to trying to do everything, but not trying to do too much at the same time," said Jolly, explaining that Whalen has realized he needs to let the game come to him instead of forcing it.
Despite those early struggles, the 18-year-old has started the season averaging 19 points and 4.6 assists per game - both team highs.
Whalen has been hot from long range since the Wildcats' holiday tournament, which they won for the fourth year in a row.
"Hopefully I can keep that up for the rest of the year because that picks us up a little bit," he said.
To do that, Whalen often stays after practice and puts up "a few hundred shots" while also trying to play basketball seven days a week.
The Wildcats (9-5, 1-4 in the I-Meck) are young after losing its top five scorers.
"We have a lot of inexperienced guys who didn't get to play a lot last year," said Whalen. "But we're really starting to come together. We haven't won many games in conference, but I expect us to start picking that up."
Being so young, Lake Norman also gets a big boost from Whalen, who is the team's leader on and off the court.
"I try to make my guys better, get them the ball when they're open and facilitate everything," he said.
Senior forward Chris Patterson, the only other player with real varsity experience, is also helping the Wildcats, averaging 12 points and 7.2 rebounds a game.
The Wildcats have gone through a difficult transition, but Whalen said the team is getting better, especially after getting a taste of winning during their holiday tournament.
"I'm expecting to put more wins up during the second half of our conference schedule," he said. "I have no doubt about that."
Jolly said he's seen what this team can do.
"I'd put us up against any team in the state for two quarters," he said. "But after that, I don't know which team is going to show up."
Jolly said he's focused on making his team more consistent, so they can close out games.
The Wildcats had a 15-point lead against Vance at the half, but struggled to show up after the break. Lake Norman lost the game by 18 points.
Jolly admits his team has gotten better, but adds they still have a long way to go. He said the Wildcats have what it takes to make up some ground in the I-Meck during the rest of the regular season.
Whalen hopes his team is able to make it to the playoffs, but before they can do that he said the team needs to have an attitude makeover.
"We don't have that killer mentality - we have to want to win more," he said. "We can't have guys taking plays off."
The passionate Whalen won't be.
"I love basketball," he said. "I always want to win, so I'm one of the most competitive guys out there. I never like to lose."