After playing behind some of the area's best talent in recent years at Hopewell, Elliott Pope was excited for his senior season to arrive. It was his time to shine.
But a knee injury he suffered getting a rebound during an AAU game in early July put that in jeopardy.
"It was kind of a shock," said Pope. "I knew something was wrong immediately."
But Pope wasn't ready to acknowledge that the pain in his right knee could keep him off the court. Even after meeting with a doctor, he decided to continue playing at a tournament in Louisville, Ky., where he would be playing in front of college scouts.
"But it just got to the point where my leg locked up and I couldn't put any weight on it and had to be carried off the court," he said, explaining it was then he realized that he couldn't ignore the injury anymore.
Pope had chipped a quarter-sized piece of bone off his lower femur that could shift around his knee and cause pain to shoot up from his calf to his quad if it got out of socket.
"It was like having somebody take a knife and run it through the top part of your knee," he said.
The piece of bone would also slip out and push against Pope's tendons, which would make his knee lock up.
At first Pope was told the surgery required for that kind of injury, which would require re-growing the bone, would keep him off the court for at least a year. He didn't want to miss his last season as a Titan, so he sought a second opinion. Pope was given a riskier, but less invasive option, using screws to put the bone back together. This option, doctors said, would allow him to get back to basketball in four months. He didn't think over it twice.
After the surgery, a week after his 18th birthday in late July, Pope wasn't allowed to put any weight on his right leg, forcing him to use a walker for six weeks.
Pope admits it was frustrating being forced to watch his teammates as they went through preseason workouts.
"Not being able to be with those guys, work with them, sweat with them, was probably the worst part of it all," he said.
Pope progressively was allowed to do more on the court - dribble, run - but he started the season playing a low number of minutes. The center averaged only 5 points per game in the first six games of the year as Hopewell started 3-3 on the season. His frustration kept growing.
"He was down psychologically," said Titans' first-year coach Damon Bost. "Physically there was only so much he could do."
Pope started to test his knee's limits against Lake Norman before the holiday break. He went on to score eight points against the Wildcats, but he was still unhappy.
Only a few days later, the Titans entered the Prep All-Star Tournament at Queens University. Pope decided not to hold anything back.
"It got to a point where I thought, 'If I'm going to get hurt again, I'm going to get hurt again. I might as well push it and see what happens,'" said Pope.
His effort paid off almost immediately, as he led the Titans to a win against West Mecklenburg, leading all scorers with 20 points. Pope was named to the all-tournament team.
Since then, the 6-foot-7 Pope has been huge for the inexperienced Titans, averaging nearly 18 points and 10 rebounds per game.
But he admits he doesn't pay attention to stats. He cares more about how Hopewell is doing.
"If I was going to average two points and two rebounds, but we would win every game, I'd do it in a heartbeat," said Pope.
He's provided the leadership and experience the Titans have needed.
"He leads this team vocally and by example," said Bost. "He's the first one in the door and the last one to leave. It's been like that the last three years."
Pope also knows what it's like to compete against talented big guys, having had to defend all-state forward DeMon Brooks, who is now at Davidson, at practice for two years.
Pope's biggest asset for Hopewell may be his versatility, as he's not only able to bang his way inside, but is also able to shoot the ball.
"I've been called a 'Euro' (style) player before," he said. "I'm just a hustler. I'm just a guy who will do whatever it takes to win."
Bost said Pope, who's shooting 50 percent from the floor, has been doing just that.
"He raises the level of play of all his teammates," said Bost. "When he's playing well, everybody else's confidence level goes up. They know if they're in a jam, he'll help them out."
After starting the I-Meck season 2-6, the Titans seem to have come together in the past few weeks, winning three in a row heading into last Friday's game against Mallard Creek.
Pope hopes Hopewell (8-10, 5-6 as of Feb. 3) is able to finish strong against rivals North Mecklenburg before hosting the conference tournament starting Monday.
"I've been so used to winning with a Hopewell jersey on that is kind of hard to see us lose this many games," he said. "It's all about pride right now."