Two years ago, the East Mecklenburg girls' basketball team made it to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A regional semifinals, losing to West Charlotte 41-40. Last season, the Eagles made it one step farther, losing to eventual state champion Butler 49-35 in the regional final.
So far this year, East Meck is struggling and has not won their first game. After losing all of the top players from last year's team and with a new head coach, East Meck (0-4 through Dec. 2)) went from being one of the top programs in the state to a team that has had to start all over again.
"It's taken its toll, more mentally than anything," said coach David Wilson, who is in his first year with the Eagles after spending two years as the junior varsity coach at Providence. "I have a bunch of players who don't know what it takes to win."
East Meck's roster was decimated after last season. Their all-state forward Monet Tellier graduated and is now playing at Virginia Tech. Two other top players - point guard Aaliyah Kirkpatrick and shooting guard Jaymee Fisher-Davis - were reassigned to Butler with the opening of Rocky River High. Head coach Bradyn Monismith also retired.
Junior forward Sandra Knox isn't just the team's only returning starter, but also the Eagles' only player with varsity experience.
"She is the glue to this team," said Wilson, 45.
Knox, who will turn 17 Dec. 30, is still getting used to her leadership role.
"I was shocked by it," she said. "The last few years I've been a role player. It's a big step going from role player to leader."
Besides Knox, Wilson is relying on several freshman and sophomores to carry the team. Freshman forward Ashley Wingo is one of the team's top young prospects.
"She's a great player," said Wilson. "I push her because I know what talent she has and how far she can go."
Wingo is also a national record holder in shot put for her age group, said Wilson. She's played several years of AAU basketball. Though she didn't expect to start this early in high school, she's excited about it.
"It was my goal, but I didn't think I would get it," she said.
Another freshman, guard Jayla Horton, also should contribute this season for the Eagles, but she has had to sit out several practices with a concussion. Jazmine Kirksey, a sophomore transfer from Milwaukee also will be a big part of this team.
"We're trying really hard right now," said Wingo. "We just have to work out a few things."
Effort is what Wilson cares about the most. After a 88-32 loss to Mallard Creek Nov. 30, in which Wilson didn't think the team played with enough effort and heart, the Eagles spent most of the next practice running sprints and basic drills.
The cast on Wilson's right hand shows the passion he has for the game: he broke it in the locker room after the Mallard Creek game.
"I'm not upset that we lost, I'm upset at how we lost," he said about the game.
He is "100 miles per hour, 100 percent of the time," he said, and he expects the same out of his team.
"I'll be the first to criticize them but also the first to congratulate them," said Wilson.
In two years as the JV coach at Providence, he went 36-4.
Wilson said he is excited about getting the chance to be head coach, especially for a rebuilding team that he can have an immediate impact on.
"It's a big challenge and any coach worth their salt would take it," he said.
Wins aren't as important for Wilson this year. He wants the team to play hard and fight in each game. He also wants the girls to keep their heads up and be confident about their talent.
"For me to consider this a successful season, (I want) to have the girls believe in themselves," he said.
If they do that, he said, he believes the Eagles will be back as one of the best teams in the state in "the next year or two."
"I think we'll get better as the years progress," said Wingo. "We'll improve each game and each practice."
No matter how good the team is this year or the next two years, Wilson is going to continue to bring the same passion to each game and each practice.
"I'm all in," he said.