Cabarrus girls’ basketball teams face tough conference competition

For some teams in the MECKA, looking at the conference schedule must be like browsing The Charlotte Observer’s Sweet 16 girls’ basketball poll.

In the most recent poll, published Dec. 15, five MECKA teams were ranked – including Jay M. Robinson and A.L. Brown – and another only recently dropped from the list.

The coaches of the two ranked Cabarrus County teams – Robinson’s Lin Smithson, and A.L. Brown’s Mike Wolford – said they feel as if their schedules will give them little time to relax the rest of the season.

In the Dec. 15 poll, Robinson was ranked ninth and Brown No. 15. Other MECKA teams in the poll were Hopewell (No. 4), Hough (No. 14) and North Mecklenburg (No. 16).

West Charlotte recently fell from the rankings. The two non-ranked MECKA teams – Vance and Mallard Creek – already have proved they can play with the conference elite.

“I leave a game, a close game, and get home around 11 o’clock,” said Smithson. “I immediately am pulling out information (on the next opponent), trying to get prepared for the next game.

“It’s pretty exhausting for an old woman.”

Entering the winter break, which also was a break from conference play, Robinson was tied with Hopewell for first, with a 3-0 record. The Bulldogs were 9-1 overall, their only loss to top-ranked Myers Park.

Brown was 2-1 in MECKA and had a 7-1 overall record. The Wonders’ only blemish was a 51-32 loss to Robinson on Dec. 18.

Robinson and Brown both became members of the MECKA prior to the 2013-14 season.

The shift wasn’t Robinson’s first foray into 4A; the Bulldogs were in the higher classification from 2005-2008.

A.L. Brown was last classified 4A in the 1980s, however, so the Wonders were relative newcomers to the predominantly Mecklenburg County conference last year.

Smithson warned Wolford about what he should be ready for prior to the 2013-14 season; Robinson had just concluded a four-year run in the South Piedmont 3A, in which Smithson’s team had lost just one conference game in the previous two years.

Though Robinson returned a strong team, Smithson quickly realized the competition in the new conference might be a little stiffer. The Bulldogs had to adjust to a style of play that was quicker and more aggressive defensively.

The Bulldogs finished 8-6 in the conference last season, good enough for fifth place. They had beaten every team in the regular season except Hopewell. Robinson lost to the Titans four times overall, including once in the conference tournament and again in the state playoffs.

A.L. Brown found MECKA even tougher. Despite early-season nonconference wins against East Rowan, South Rowan and Central Cabarrus – some of the SPC’s top teams – the Wonders faltered in conference play, landing in seventh with a 2-12 record.

Both Brown and Robinson returned experienced teams this season. The Wonders have four seniors in their rotation, all with three or four years of varsity experience.

“The girls have put in the work,” said Wolford. “We’ve been in the conference for a year and took our lumps the first time through. The girls realized what it’s going to take to be successful against teams that are very fast, strong, talented and very aggressive. They’ve stepped up their game.”

Brown is led by senior Aitana Grant, an all-conference guard in 2013-14. A quick defensive specialist, she averages 15 points, seven rebounds, three assists, and four steals a game.

Playing important supporting roles are guard Kyla Downs (12 points per game), point guard Shemya Stanback, who leads the team with 11 rebounds per game, and Talethia Alexander, who often provides a hot hand from the outside.

Robinson has six seniors, who all started at least some games last season. Senior Kelsi Mahoney, who scored her 1,000th career point earlier this season, leads the Bulldogs with 14 points and 10 rebounds.

Senior Sydni Bickford chips in 11 points per game and solid defense, and senior Ashley Bearden averages nine points and nine rebounds per game.

Robinson is scheduled to play at North Meck on Jan. 6 and will visit Hopewell on Jan. 9.

Brown is scheduled to host Concord on Jan. 7 in a nonconference game and travel to Mallard Creek on Jan. 9.