Shifting lineup keeps Robinson on top

Looking at her roster in the preseason, Concord Robinson coach Lin Smithson saw two things she liked: speed and depth.

An up-tempo style of play would be foreign to some of her players, so she studied how to initiate it. Smithson talked with other coaches and researched the topic on the Internet.

What she learned was that it would be important to keep fresh players on the floor, a perfect match for a team that could easily go 10 players deep. The results have been good into the mid-season.

Without a concrete starting five, Robinson regularly uses nearly a dozen players. Through the midway point of the conference schedule, the Bulldogs have established themselves as the South Piedmont 3A frontrunner, passing rival Concord, which won the last four league championships.

"I always want to be better," said Smithson. "We really changed our entire style of play this year. I have six seniors, but I still kind of feel like we have a young team because we're playing a lot of girls that haven't played before."

Winning is not a nebulous concept to the Bulldogs. They have been at or near the top of their conference for a half a decade.

Graduating last year, though, was the most prolific player in program history. Kelsee Cheek, a four-year starter, scored the most points in Cabarrus County basketball history (boys and girls), and often was the focal point of the Bulldogs' game.

The Bulldogs are getting contributions from two freshmen this season and five juniors, some who played on a junior varsity team that lost just one game last year.

The newly found team speed starts with senior guards Desiree Gray, Chartea Peay, ball-handling wiz Izzy Bernal and junior Madison Fulford, a track and field standout who placed third in the 300-meter hurdles at last year's state meet. They lead the Bulldogs' fastbreak and defensive pressure.

"The team's faster than it was last year, which we like," said senior Daylin Leftwich, a soft-shooting forward whose outlet passes often start the offensive push. "We get more fastbreaks and it's easier off of transition."

The two freshmen, 6-foot-1 Kelsi Mahoney, and sharp-shooting Sydni Bickford, have been very complementary to the Bulldogs' new style. Mahoney plays in the post but has the ball-handling skills of a guard. Mahoney's marksmanship was best displayed at an early-season game at South Rowan when she burned the nets with six three-pointers and 20 points.

Role players Olivia Newell, a senior, and juniors Tori Neale and Jasmine Young are making key contributions with key minutes off the bench. Robinson would be even deeper if two players hadn't sustained serious injuries. Senior guard Rachel Lloyd suffered a season-ending concussion in a game against Salisbury and Rachel Cook started the season with knee surgery but may return before the end of the season.

Early indications of how good the Bulldogs could be came in a pre-season scrimmage against an athletic and fast North Mecklenburg team and early season victories over Butler and Concord.

After a Jan. 6 victory over Concord Cox Mill, Robinson's overall record was 10-4. The Bulldogs were 5-0 in conference play, the SPC's lone undefeated team. Robinson has had six different players lead it in scoring this season.

"All of us seniors want to be conference champs our senior year," said Newell. "And to at least get the chance to go to states and get that championship."