When Phillip Reed came to South Mecklenburg High as a ninth-grade, junior-varsity basketball player, he was 6-foot-1. In his sophomore year on JV, he was about 6-foot-5. This year, Reed is another three inches taller.
South Meck's tallest player last year was 6-foot-6. Now the Sabres have a tall group of players with juniors Reed (6-foot-8 forward) and Malcom Mathews (6-foot-9 center) and senior David Moore (6-foot-6 forward) filling the paint.
"That's our advantage," third-year South Meck coach John Fitch said. "When the guards learn how to work that tandem, we're going to be pretty dangerous."
Though the height and talent is there, it may take several games for everything to come together, said Fitch.
Reed is tall and thin and needs to get stronger. After such a quick growth spurt, he's also been a little clumsy getting used to his size, said Fitch, but he's working hard to improve his inside game.
"He's one of the hardest-working guys on the team, and it's going to pay off for him," said Fitch. "He's a great kid. He listens, doesn't say anything back to you, and he'll do whatever you ask."
Mathews was academically ineligible last season but was in the program as a freshman. Moore averaged eight points for the team last year. The key to their success will be making sure the guards - returning starters Carrington Kirkpatrick (6-foot-1), a senior, and junior Craig Thompson (5-foot-10) - can get them the ball.
In the Sabres' opening game against Olympic last week, a 63-49 loss, the guards struggled to get the ball inside to the South Meck big men. Even when they did get the ball, the forwards often didn't capitalize.
"We did not use our height advantage," said Fitch. "They didn't get the ball into David Moore or get the ball into Malcom Mathews as much as we should."
Fitch said he was glad his players got to play a talented team like Olympic, No. 2 in the Observer Sweet 16, so early in the season. The Sabres had a five-point lead after the first quarter and were down just five at the half before scoring only 10 points in the third and allowing the Trojans to pull away. The performance gave South Meck something to build on, Fitch said.
"We knew it was going to be hard. ... We should have been up 10 or 15 points in the first quarter very easily because they weren't shooting well," said Fitch. "I think they see that they can play with a team like this. I know they can."
South Mecklenburg finished 12-16 overall last year but went 8-6 in the conference, good enough for a third-place finish in the Southwestern 4A. The Sabres also made it to the conference tournament championship, losing to Butler in the final.
The Sabres lost just one senior, forward Josh Moore, from that team. The starting backcourt, Carrington and Thompson, returns after averaging a combined 20 points per game.
"They're a very close team, and I think in the long run they're going to be really good ..." said Fitch. "We're looking forward to getting better."
Getting better will mean taking advantage of the team's strength: its height inside.