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Ardrey Kell senior basketball players lift Knights to No. 1

When Collin Cooper, Devin Cooper, Seth Davis, Josh Freund, Luke Lawson, Steven Santa Ana and Rhyle Scott arrived at Ardrey Kell four years ago, few people outside the Knights’ locker room knew who they were.

The seven were familiar with each other. Santa Ana, Scott and Davis played together at Jay M. Robinson Middle School, while both Coopers (no relation), Freund and Lawson played at rival Community House.

“In middle school, we were big rivals in basketball, and we used to see each other at Ardrey Kell football games and we definitely didn’t like each other, and may have talked a little trash,” said Devin Cooper, laughing at the memory. “It was kind of funny that we all came together on the Ardrey Kell basketball team. Now, we are all a family. All those guys are like my brothers.”

Now they form the core of one of Charlotte’s – and the state’s – best boys’ basketball teams.

Their freshman year, Collin and Devin Cooper, and Santa Ana made the varsity team, while Davis, Freund, Lawson and Scott started on the Knights’ junior varsity squad.

Ardrey Kell varsity struggled for most of that year, going 9-16 and missing the playoffs by one game.

“All of those guys came here with talent, but none of them were polished players as freshman,” said Ardrey Kell basketball coach Michael Craft, who has led the program in all nine years of the school’s existence. He credits his assistants, Ryan Shinn and Jonathan Stein, for much of the player development.

“But each guy has worked extremely hard, and, like our team, gotten better each season,” Craft said.

Winning has defined the group ever since. Ardrey Kell went 23-7 when they were sophomores and 24-7 junior year.

This year, Ardrey Kell is 22-1 (13-0 SoMeck 8 as of Feb. 11), having won 21 straight games going into the season finale at South Mecklenburg.

The Knights are No. 1 in the Observer Sweet 16, No. 1 in the 4A state media poll, and No. 44 in the latest USA Today national rankings.

The Knights already clinched their first conference title since 2010.

“Over the last couple years, I believe our record speaks for itself, but we haven’t always gotten a lot of attention because we don’t have flashy players with big numbers,” said Craft. “We’ve gained a lot of respect this year. We’ve never been No. 1 in the Observer Sweet 16, never been No. 1 in the state and never been that high in the national rankings. Obviously, we want to be No. 1 in the end. To do that, we are going to have to win in February and March.”

All seven seniors have played a pivotal role this season. Davis, Collin Cooper, Santa Ana, Scott and Freund start, while Devin Cooper and Lawson are the first two players off the bench.

Santa Ana (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) is leading the team in scoring for the third straight season at 13.7 points per game. He is also pulling down 6.4 rebounds, dishing three assists and nabbing 1.5 steals per contest. Santa Ana says he is most proud of his defense, where he has drawn 20 charges.

Scott (6-4, 180) has had a career-year, nearly doubling his scoring (11.2 ppg) and rebounding (6.7 rpg) output from a year ago.

The same can be said for Freund (6-5, 225), who is averaging a career-best 10.1 points and eight rebounds per game.

Collin Cooper (5-9, 170) averages a career-best 9.2 points per game.

Devin Cooper (6-1, 180) transferred to Northside Christian this summer before returning to Ardrey Kell earlier this season. He has been the team’s sixth-man, scoring 9.1 points per game.

Lawson (6-3, 170) spent the past two seasons at Grace Academy before returning to Ardrey Kell. He has been a sharpshooter off the bench (2.5 ppg) who doesn’t make mistakes, according to Craft.

“All seven seniors are like starters to me,” Craft said. “All of them could probably be putting up big numbers somewhere else. But all of them have really bought into, the team is more important than one guy. It’s been really gratifying to see it all pay off so far.”

Santa Ana, the is the school’s all-time leader in points, rebounds and steals, has signed with Elon and Devin Cooper signed with Radford. Freund recently committed to Randolph (Va.) College.

Collin Cooper, and Scott all have varying levels of Division II and III interest, according to Craft, and Lawson has similar interest as well as an offer from Army.

The senior class hopes to erase the memory of the way last season ended, when Lake Norman’s KiShawn Pritchett hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to give his team a 45-43 win over Ardrey Kell in the 4A state quarterfinals.

“This whole season has been an awesome experience,” Santa Ana said. “It feels great to be able to accomplish all of this together. But in the end, our goal is to get to win our last game.”

Craft also wants his team to enjoy the ride.

“We’ve talked about just embracing everything we’ve accomplished a lot,” Craft said. “Embrace the winning streak, embrace the rankings, and enjoy it while it lasts. We understand there is a bulls-eye on our backs. Our focus is just to keep winning games.”