Playing in the ME-CA 7 4A Conference the past four years, Robinson High boys' basketball team was often over its head against such state powers as Vance, Hopewell and North Mecklenburg high schools.
Now that Robinson (10-14 overall in 2008-09) is playing in the South Piedmont 3A Conference, the Bulldogs may not win the league, but they think they'll be competitive.
Led by sophomore Elijah Hampton, Robinson hopes to be in the South Piedmont's upper tier with Concord, A.L. Brown and Northwest Cabarrus. Hampton led the Bulldogs in scoring (averaging 20 points per game) and rebounding (averaging 8) last year, and is the program's most exciting player in several years.
"There were no expectations for him as far as what he would contribute last year," said Robinson coach Joe Pike. "The first couple of games (this year) he lit it up and surprised everybody."
Seniors Zach Fandl and Joe Potts will be in the backcourt with Hampton as Pike pushes an up-tempo game. First Assembly transfers Jacob Allen and Ross Gadd will make Robinson stronger, too.
Allen (6-feet-7) played two years at Robinson before attending First Assembly for one season. Junior Chris McKenzie and freshman Rayshawn Bostick will come off the bench.
With five of its top players returning from last year's regional finalist squad, Concord (29-2 overall, 16-0 South Piedmont) is favored to repeat as conference champs. Junior Jacquise Moore (18 ppg) is the reigning South Piedmont player of the year.
Seniors Griffin Templeton (averaging 12 points), Jalen Cannady (8 points, 4.5 rebounds ) and C.J. Gridine (5 points) and sophomore Kendall Knorr (8 points) make the Spiders' state title contenders. Patrick Jenkins and Will Vanderburg are up from a 21-1 junior varsity, and freshman Darren Black will contribute.
Northwest (17-8) moves from the North Piedmont 3A, where it was a strong team for four years. Coach Daniel Jenkins thinks the Trojans' chemistry is as good as ever.
Senior all-conference shooting guard Tyler Honeycutt (14.2 points, 2 assists per game) leads a strong backcourt directed by senior point guard Jordan Brand ( 7 points, 4 assists, 3 spg.).
Senior guard Jaques Deese is A.L. Brown's (16-9) top returning scorer (12 points, 4 assists). Senior Zach Fesperman and juniors Teven Jones and Chandler Reynolds will try to help the Wonders to another strong finish (16-9 last year).
Like Robinson, Central is pleased to drop from 4A to 3A. Senior Quintin Gay provides strong defense and experience from a 4-20 team. Aaron Johnson led the Vikings in scoring as a freshman.
The Tigers look to improve on last year's 7-17 mark with forward Cam Mabry (11 points, 4 rebounds), Dewey Andrews (6 rebounds, 4 assists) and Dylan McSwain (9 points), their top defender.
Junior post player Danny Book led Hickory Ridge (6-18 overall), averaging 7 points and 7 rebounds, and senior Blake Wood has started three years for the Ragin' Bulls.
Cox Mill has 10 juniors and two sophomores on its inaugural roster, but none of them logged any varsity minutes at their previous schools.
With a reshaped North Piedmont 3A, South Rowan and Carson both think they can challenge West Rowan for a conference title.
South Rowan (14-12) lacks height, but its speed will support its transition game. At 6-2, senior guard John Davis (10 points) shares the distinction of being the team's tallest player with B.J. Grant, who led the Raiders in rebounding last season.
At Carson (12-15), senior Darius Moose (18 points, 10 rebounds) is one of the area's best, and junior Nick Houston (10 points, 8 rebounds) leads a strong supporting cast.