The Providence girls' basketball team has overcome a lot this year. The varsity team has nine players on the roster and only two are returning. So few girls tried out, coaches weren't sure they would have a junior varsity team. Bill Smith is in his first year as the Panthers' head , the fourth coach in six years.
Providence started the season 0-5 and looked headed for another losing season. Then the Panthers won seven of their next eight games, including three straight to win the West Mecklenburg Holiday Tournament, where they beat the previously undefeated host 65-56.
"In the past, losing has bred losing," said Smith. "Now we're hoping that winning will breed winning."
With a month left in the regular season, the Panthers are 7-7 (3-1 Southwestern 4A through Jan. 6), just three wins shy of their total from last year, when Providence made a late season run and made the playoffs for the first time in many years.
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This team doesn't look like it should be better than last year's. Only two starters returned - juniors Elena Covert and Alyson King, both three-year varsity players - and the Panthers only have one senior on the team, Brittany Ellis, who is playing for the first time. With such a small roster, all nine players get playing time, which means Smith must rely on a lot of underclassmen.
In addition to their other challenges, the team didn't start practicing together until after the season started since three of the girls - junior Alexandra Mayo and sophomores Casey Rieger and Emily Franklin - were on the volleyball team that went to the state championship this year.
"We were way behind in really getting our team together," said Smith. "We definitely got out to a slow start, plus (we had) a very tough, challenging schedule."
Providence's non-conference schedule included games against North Mecklenburg (9-4), Hopewell (11-1) and defending girls' 3A champion Forestview (9-3).
Smith said there wasn't one moment when things started to click for his team.
"I began to see them come together and run some things well," he said. "It wasn't one particular game, but we started to play better against very good competition and gained a little bit of confidence."
For the players, one game stood out above the others: Rocky River on Dec. 10. The Panthers beat their conference rival 68-33 in their first SW4A game of the season, just two days after notching their first win against Weddington.
"Then our streak started," said King, who is averaging 7.9 points. "Our winning streak."
Providence won their next two conference games over South Mecklenburg and Independence before heading into winter break.
Rieger was a big part of the team's streak. She only scored two points in her first two games but is now averaging a team high 11.4 points and scored 22 points in the Panthers' win over Independence and 18 points in the win over West Mecklenburg.
"Casey Rieger is our leading scorer, and she started out her first three or four games with single digits scoring," said Smith. "She's really stepped up and transitioned well."
Rieger also has 8.7 rebounds a game, which, along with Franklin's 9.5 rebounds, makes them one of the best rebounding teams in the conference.
Winning the holiday tournament has been the highlight of the season for Providence. It's the first championship of any kind they have won in the five years that Smith has been in the Providence program.
The Panthers had no problems in their first game, beating West Charlotte 60-43 then East Mecklenburg, the defending SW4A champions who are rebuilding this year, 53-45 before facing West Mecklenburg, who entered the game 9-0.
Though his small roster would be playing its third game in as many days, Smith wasn't worried about fatigue.
"I think you get momentum in those holiday tournaments and you ignore being tired," he said. "The main thing I told the girls...was, 'We've lost all the games we're expected to lose. We've won the games we've expected to win, but we haven't yet won a game against a team we're not expected to beat. It's time to do that.'"
Smith said he watched them the night before and knew if they could keep West Meck from getting fast breaks, they had a chance. Providence made it a half court game and won.
"I think (the win) definitely gave us more confidence to know that it's not OK to lose all the time so we've got to fight now," said Rieger.
The team hopes the win will give them momentum going into the second half of the year.
"I think that's a lot closer to the competition we're going to be facing because we have a harder second half to our conference, so that will definitely help us be ready for these next few games," said Covert, who is second behind Rieger with 9.8 points a game.
So far, the momentum hasn't worked the way they wanted, with a loss at home to Myers Park and a tough game against Butler last week. But Smith is still happy with his team.
"At this point in the season, we have more confidence than we've ever had in a number of years, so we still feel good about where we're at," he said.
With only one senior leaving after this year, Smith also feels good about where the program is headed.
"I'm very, very proud of the girls," he said. "The most important thing I want them to do is continue to play well, gain confidence and hope that it changes the mentality here at Providence."