Brian Field said he always dreamed of returning to his alma mater, becoming head coach, and taking the team to a state championship.
He just never realized how much fun the whole thing would be.
“I mean, this was a dream,” said Field, a 1994 Providence Day graduate who coached the Chargers to the NCISAA 3A boys’ crown and the No. 1 spot in the final Sweet 16 poll. “But to do it with a group of players like we had –a group that bought into the team philosophy, played the game the right way, and had fun – that was the bonus.”
The fun ride hasn’t ended, either. Providence Day (30-3) will play this month in the Dicks’ Sporting Goods Nationals in New York City and will face perennial basketball powerhouse Montverde (Fla.) Academy on March 31 in an ESPN nationally televised quarterfinal game.
This season, all five Chargers starters averaged in double figures, and the team had three seniors – Grant Williams, Josh Howard and Isaac Johnson – who had played since their freshmen season at Providence Day. Providence Day was No. 1 in the Sweet 16 all season, a rare wire-to-wire poll basketball champion.
“At the beginning of the season, we said, ‘Lets do whatever it takes, even if there are personal sacrifices,’ ” Field said.
Howard, a 6-foot-6 forward and son of former Michigan “Fab 5” star Juwan Howard, said he knew what he wanted.
“My thinking was that I wasn’t leaving here without a state championship,” Howard said.
“I knew we had a lot of talent,” Johnson added, “but I learned that we also are a group of brothers.”
Field said there were times when he had to be the stern coach, but most of the season was an incredible ride.
“Depth was an issue,” he said. “We basically had a seven-player rotation. But we were well-conditioned. We knew we had to avoid foul troubles and play smart, and for the most part, that happened.”
With the three seniors and double-digit scoring from sophomore guards Devon Dotson and Trey Wertz, the Chargers survived the challenge. Providence Day won what MaxPreps called one of the nation’s five toughest state tournaments.
Providence Day’s title run was its first since 1999 and the first for a Charlotte-area CISAA school in 12 years – since the conference eliminated a policy that allowed schools to reclassify players. In previous seasons, the rule would allow schools to, in effect, redshirt players for an extra year of eligibility. That means CISAA schools today often face the equivalent of college freshmen on some N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association teams in the state.
That made the championship even more satisfying, Field admitted.
The Chargers opened their seasons with losses to national powers Oak Hill (Va.) and Mountain Mission (Va.). That was followed by 10 straight victories, a loss in a pre-Christmas tournament to nationally ranked Decatur (Ga.) Greenforest, and then 20 more victories. In the state final, Wertz had 25 points, six rebounds and six assists to lead Providence Day to a 67-53 win against a High Point Christian team that featured nine Division I recruits, including McDonald’s All-American and Kentucky recruit Edrice “Bam” Adebayo.
“As a group, we were fearless,” Field said. “We were not afraid to go out and play whoever is out there.”
Williams, a 6-7 forward signed to Tennessee, called the season “breathtaking.”
“Imagine all of this,” said Williams, a 2014-15 Associated Press all-state pick and the reigning Observer Player of the Year, “a state championship, and now a tournament in New York City.”
Field said his team performs well in the classroom (the three senior standouts all were recruited by Ivy League and other top academic schools) and somehow finds time for other activities. Williams, for example, is preparing not only for the New York trip but for a role in the school’s April production of “Anything Goes,” a popular musical that got its start on Broadway in 1934.
Said Field: “Our program motto is ‘Family.’ These guys have fun with one another, but they hold each other accountable.”
Johnson said he has heard talk that Providence Day will be cannon fodder in New York, where a field that includes most of the country’s top high school teams awaits. Providence Day is the No. 8 seed in a field of eight.
“Some people are down on us,” he said. “We’ll go up there and try to prove them wrong. It’s one more challenge.”
Final Observer Boys Basketball Sweet 16
1. Providence Day (IND)
2. Concord Robinson (3A)
3. Charlotte Catholic (4A)
4. N. Mecklenburg (4A)
5. East Lincoln (2A)
6. Forest Hills (2A)
7. Butler (4A)
8. Cox Mill (3A)
9. Fort Mill (4A)
10. Weddington (3A)
11. Independence (4A)
12. Lincoln Charter (1A)
13. Concord (3A)
14. Hough (4A)
15. Berry (4A)
16. Lincolnton (2A)
Dropped out: None. Also receiving consideration: Lake Norman Charter (2A, 22-8); Queens Grant (1A, 22-6); West Charlotte (4A, 15-11); Ashbrook (3A, 17-13)