Zach and Ben Simons were scared when they walked into their first AAU basketball practice at Jay M. Robinson Middle. They were in fifth grade and had been playing basketball with their dad, Bill, since they were 5, but they didn't know what to expect with the new team.
"Thank God I had him to kind of be there with and kind of run up and down the court with," said Zach. "I knew if I passed it to him he'd catch it and we wouldn't look too bad."
"It was kind of like a security blanket," added Ben.
Seven years later, the fraternal twins are still running up and down the court together, now as two seniors on the Charlotte Country Day boys' basketball team.
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Country Day coach Dwayne Cherry, in his second year leading the Buccaneers, said it's nice to have two experienced players back from a team that lost seven seniors.
"They both give us a scoring threat on the offensive end and they both understand the offense that we're running, so it will be good to have them back," he said.
They may be twins, but Zach and Ben, 18, are the quick to point out that they don't play or act similarly.
"Polar opposites," said Zach. "People at school are like, 'How are you so different?'"
Zach, a 6-foot-3 guard, has the more natural athletic ability whereas Ben, a 6-foot-4 forward, has to work hard. Zach has good jumping ability and can dunk while Ben can barely touch the rim.
"I know I'm not athletic," said Ben, who was named all-conference last year. "I've got to do the dirty work, like taking charges, boxing out."
Ben (12.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last year) is a sharpshooter from beyond the three-point line, holding the school record for three-pointers in a game (seven), season (62) and career (132). Zach (7.3 points, 4.8 rebounds per game) said he sometimes struggles with his shot.
They don't even pull for the same college team; Ben is a big Duke fan and Zach pulls for North Carolina.
Ben and Zach's different styles complement each other on the court and they have chemistry that comes from years of playing together. They also push each other to get better. Ben said he pushes Zach more because he has more potential.
"I think Zach gets tired of me pushing him," said Ben. "I just know he's a really good player and I try to bring the best out of him every game. I know if we work together we can do something special."
The two said they have gotten some interest from Division III schools, but would rather try to walk onto a Division I school.
Country Day (13-13, 6-2 CISAA) finished second in the conference last season, but it won't be easy for the Buccaneers to repeat after losing seven seniors from last year and playing in a tough conference. Zach and Ben said that the loss of Wake Hamilton and Morgan Roberts hurt the most.
"I'm definitely going to miss Wake. Not a lot of players are like him. He could do it all." said Ben. "Morgan was probably the best leader I've ever been around."
The Bucs do have talent, but lack the experience they had last year. Sophomore Kendon McLaurin, younger brother of former Country Day player Earl, who now plays for Navy, will be the team's point guard again this year after starting as a freshman. He will get help in the backcourt from junior Harding transfer Matthew Spears, who Cherry says will be a big addition to the team this year.
"Matthew is great off the dribble, can really create his own shot, can be a lock down defender because he's so quick, quick with the ball and quick with his feet," he said.
Sophomore Troy Henderson (6-foot-6) will move up from the junior varsity team this year and should be a good defensive and shot-blocking presence inside for the Bucs.
The Bucs will rely senior leadership from the Simons brothers and senior forward Bryan Erb, who have all been playing on the varsity team since their freshman year and have played AAU basketball together since the sixth grade.
"They're going to provide that leadership because they've been here, they know what it takes," said Cherry. "Those guys have been through the battles, so when we face that kind of adversity, those are the two guys we'll look to."
The team benefitted from playing together over the summer, beating teams from Independence and Providence.
"We had a good summer. Team camp and summer league went very well," said Cherry. "Hopefully what we did over the summer will carry over into the season."
The Simons brothers will be key to that success.
Ben and Zach played many sports growing up. Ben was a pitcher and Zach a catcher in little league before Ben threw his arm out. They still play golf together in the summer, but they don't play any other sports for the school. Basketball just worked for them.
"We've played multiple sports. We used to swim together, we played baseball together, golf, football in middle school," said Zach. "I think we kind of liked (basketball) and stuck to it just because we kind of had each other and knew we could depend on one another."