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Cox Mill and Hickory Ridge boys’ basketball rise to top

For the past nine years, every boys’ basketball team in the South Piedmont 3A has chased Concord for conference supremacy. The Spiders won regular season championships from the 2005-06 season to 2013-14.

But this year, Cabarrus County’s two youngest programs have overtaken the league leader and risen to the top of the SPC standings.

As of Feb. 12 – before the regular season’s final games – Cox Mill and Hickory Ridge shared the SPC lead with records of 13-2. They were jockeying for seeding position in the conference tournament, which was scheduled to begin Feb. 17.

Concord was third in the conference with a 12-4 record.

Hickory Ridge will host the tournament semifinals Feb. 18, and the boys’ and girls’ championship games on Feb. 20. The girls’ semifinals Feb. 19 will be at Hickory Ridge.

“Two of the newest schools are tied in first place right now,” said Hickory Ridge coach Robert Machado. “There’s all that history with the other schools, and to have the two new schools fighting it out is a cool story.”

Machado and Cox Mill coach Jody Barbee were friends and basketball teammates at Mount Pleasant in the early 1990s. They played under coach Scott Brewer, who led Central Cabarrus to a state championship in 2000 and directed Concord to the state finals in 2010.

Machado has been Hickory Ridge’s coach since the school opened in 2007. Barbee, who once served as Brewer’s assistant at Concord, became Cox Mill’s head coach last year.

“I think our coaching styles are a little different,” said Barbee. “I’m more like Scott Brewer: up-tempo and pressing. (Machado) wants to control tempo and slow it down a little bit with his bigger guards.”

Cox Mill cracked Concord’s dominance starting in the 2012-13 season, when it upset the Spiders in the SPC tournament semifinals and eventually claimed the tournament title. The Chargers duplicated its championship last year. Their 2014 tournament run included a victory over Hickory Ridge in the semifinals.

“I think our reputation has grown,” said Cox Mill senior guard Matt Morgan. “No one would have thought a few years ago that we would have won back-to-back tournament championships. Hopefully our reputation stays that way, that we’ve built a good foundation and can continue to grow it from here.”

Cox Mill finished second to Concord in the regular season standings in 2013-14, and Hickory Ridge tied for third.

But Concord lost arguably the two most talented players in Cabarrus County after last season. Connor Burchfield, the school’s all-time leading scorer, graduated and went to William and Mary. Ty-Shon Alexander transferred, first to Charlotte’s Northside Christian then to renowned Oak Hill Academy in Virginia.

In the meantime, Cox Mill and Hickory Ridge each had players returning who could make a claim as the county’s best. Morgan is a two-time all-conference performer and has committed to Cornell. The Bulls’ Jaylen Stowe, a savvy point guard, has signed with Mercer. Both players average more than 20 points per game.

This season, both Cox Mill and Hickory Ridge swept Concord, giving the Spiders four conference losses. The Chargers and Bulls split their series, with the games being decided by one and two points.

In Hickory Ridge’s loss to Cox Mill, the Bulls were playing without senior center Bobby Babson, the team’s leading rebounder and shot blocker. He missed several games due to a concussion suffered in a loss to West Rowan on Jan. 9.

“I came into this season knowing that my role was to get rebounds and protect the glass,” said Babson. “I feel everyone on the team has played their roles the best they can.”

After the conference tournament, the teams will start the 3A state playoffs on Feb. 24.