In the locker room during half time of South Mecklenburg's game against Independence last Tuesday, second-year coach John Fitch knew something needed to change. The Sabres led 19-14 but needed a spark to put away the Patriots.
Fitch had talked about inserting a trapping defense before the game, but they hadn't practiced it. He told the team, specifically guards CJ Thompson and Carrington Kirkpatrick, to try it anyway. The Sabres trapped Independence every time they brought the ball up the court, forcing turnovers that led to easy baskets, and the Sabres ran away with the game 59-35.
"They rotated like a charm," said Fitch. "We were very fortunate."
Behind the hustle and skilled play of Thompson, a 5-foot-10 sophomore, and Kirkpatrick, a 6-foot junior, South Mecklenburg (4-7 through Jan. 6) was 3-1 in the conference and tied for second place in the Southwestern 4A before their Jan. 7 game against Myers Park, just one year after finishing the season 3-20.
Last year could have been very different. Kirkpatrick was ineligible to play because his grade point average was too low.
Kirkpatrick and Thompson had played all summer together getting ready for the season, but they didn't have a chance to show off their hard work.
"They had played together all summer and it changed everything," said Fitch, who played basketball at South Meck and was a member of the 1976 state championship team before playing at Appalachian State. "We had to put people in spots they weren't used to running and it just breeded bad stuff. It wasn't good."
Thompson, a natural scoring guard, was forced to play point guard.
"Last year when we didn't have (Kirkpatrick), I was the only ball handler on the court so they always looked for me to have the ball," said Thompson. "Now we've got him and we've got two people that can handle the ball, it opens everything up so much."
Kirkpatrick said it hurt to miss the season last year, but he's making the most of his time back, leading the team with 13.9 points, 3.4 assists and 2.9 steals per game.
"Basically I just came out and played hard and gave my team effort," said Kirkpatrick. "It feels real good to win."
Effort is something that Fitch emphasizes and both guards focus on.
"Our coach really wants us to show the effort," said Thompson. "If we don't show effort, he doesn't even want us out there."
Kirkpatrick and Thompson display a lot of chemistry in their first year as high school teammates.
Fitch thinks they will only continue to improve.
"They're just learning each other right now," he said. "I think that there's really an untapped potential between both of them defensively...and when they start learning and get a little more chemistry together defensively, I think they're a tough tandem."
The guards get help on the court from senior forward Josh Moore (6-foot-3) and junior forward David Moore (6-foot-5). David is averaging 9.4 points and a team high 8.5 rebounds per game while Josh is pulling down 7.6 rebounds per game.
Fitch is still looking for a leader on the young team and he's hoping that Kirkpatrick will take that role. It's something that the junior has been focusing on this year.
He said he needs to "speak up, tell the team to go hard, talk more on defense. So basically if we need to do something they'll follow my lead."
The team has had ups and downs this season, beating a talented Rocky River team 52-50 before holiday break, but also losing two close games because of mental mistakes. The Sabres blew late leads to lose by one point to Sun Valley early in December and to Victory Christian in the first game of the Bojangles' Shootout. Winning those games comes down to experience, said Fitch.
"Sometimes at the end of the game it won't always work out, but we just kept working hard," he said. "We don't look at the last game, we're looking for the next game."
The coach and players are focused on one thing as they enter the last month of the season: making the playoffs.
"We haven't made the playoffs since 2002 or 2003, so that's why our first goal is to make the playoffs," said Fitch.
For Thompson, it's a matter of getting over last year's tough season.
"We're just trying to leave that in the past," he said.