Last year it was a two-team race for the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 3A girls' basketball conference title, and this year it again may come down to the same two teams.
Charlotte Christian knows it is one of the two best teams in the conference, and maybe the entire state; but it will have to beat conference rival Providence Day to prove it.
Providence Day won the conference en route to its second straight state title last year behind junior standout Tiffany Mitchell - a South Carolina commit - and freshman Jatari White. The Chargers finished 28-4 and return their two stars as they go for a third straight title.
The Observer ranks Providence Day No. 1 in its Sweet 16. The Chargers' stiffest competition comes from a conference team returning one of the best post players in North Carolina and two key seniors and adding a group of transfers they feel can beat anyone.
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"We were in all of those games against Providence Day last year, and two came down to the final two minutes," said Charlotte Christian all-state center GiGi Bailey. "We know that we can play with them, and we have added some really good players."
Bailey headlines a talented group. Last year, as a sophomore, she averaged more than 23 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocks for the Knights, who finished 22-5 but 0-3 against Providence Day.
"We are more athletic this year and we have more girls who have a knowledge of the sport of basketball. Even though we are young, there is a lot of talent on this team," Bailey said.
One key returnee from last year is senior guard Maryah Mazck, a two-time all-conference performer who averaged nearly 10 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals and more than 6 rebounds a game. Senior guard Michelle Brotherton brings her 7 points a game back for her final year and will add leadership, ball-handling and steady defense.
Joining the three returning stars is a group of talented sophomore transfers. Katherine Harris comes from First Assembly, where she averaged more than 12 points. Morgan Franklin, from South Charlotte, and Chelsey Thomas, who averaged more than 8 points and 4 rebounds at Weddington, have made immediate contributions for the Knights, who are off to a 3-0 start.
"This year has started off well, but there are still some things that we are going to need to work on," Harris said. "I am sure it will come together. We have had some practices that didn't go as well, but in the games we have been on so far."
Head coach Bob Angley, who has coached Christian to state titles and coached boys' basketball for more than 30 years, knows there is talent on the team.
"We have the potential to be very good," Angley said. "GiGi is one of the best post players in all of the state, Chelsey can really shoot it and Katherine is just a ball of energy. Maryah is a steady player who does so much, so it wouldn't surprise me if we beat anyone."
So far, Harris, Bailey and Mazck have averaged double figures, and the Knights feel they are a much better team than a season ago.
"More balance is going to be the key for us this year, because we will open up the court for all of us," Mazck said. "Defenses are going to have to focus on trying to contain our whole team instead of ... one person."
The offense will still revolve around Bailey, who scored in double figures each game last year and recorded a triple-double against Country Day: 36 points, 14 rebounds and 11 blocks.