When Carrington Kirkpatrick made the varsity team as a freshman at South Mecklenburg High, few people outside the Sabres' program cared about attending a basketball game at the school.
Kirkpatrick, who had a solid first year on a 5-19 team that struggled to win all year, could hardly blame them.
"I remember everybody at school saying, 'We're not coming to the basketball games because we know you guys are going to lose,'" said Kirkpatrick, a senior who goes by KT, a childhood nickname.
"It was definitely tough enough losing and then hearing all that stuff knowing you were trying to make things better."
Things got worse before they got better.
Kirkpatrick had to sit out his sophomore season after he was ruled academically ineligible and South Meck was 3-20 overall with only one Southwestern 4A conference win.
"We went through a lot of struggles when KT first got here," said third-year South Meck basketball coach John Fitch. "But I think after KT had to sit out his sophomore year, he really came back with a chip on his shoulder and felt he had a lot to prove."
"Sitting out my sophomore year was a big wake-up call overall," Kirkpatrick said. "I knew I had to come back and show what I could do."
The Sabres got off to another slow start in nonconference play Kirkpatrick's junior year, going 4-8 overall. But South Meck finished the season strong, winning eight of their final 12 games to end up 8-6 in league play, good for third place in SW4A and a state playoff berth.
Kirkpatrick was a big key, earning all-SW4A honors and leading the team at 13.5 points per contest.
"Last year was a big year for our program and KT," Fitch said. "I thought we really learned how to win and grew up a lot in the process."
This season, Kirkpatrick got a lot of help inside when 6-foot-9 junior center Malcom Mathews became eligible. Combine Mathews with 6-foot-5 senior David Moore, 6-foot-9 junior Phillip Reed and 6-foot-5 senior, Demetrius Dove, and what once was a guard-oriented squad now had size.
While Kirkpatrick, 18, was excited about the direction his team was going in, he knew he would again have to change his role on the team.
Kirkpatrick knew it would be tough, but he trusted Fitch to help him and his team make the transition. Fitch played for South Meck in the mid-1970s, helping lead the Sabres to a state championship, before going on to play for Bobby Cremins at Appalachian State University.
"You have to give KT a lot of credit because he has been here through the thick and the thin at South and grown up with the team," Fitch said. "He will do whatever it takes to win. While we have a lot more talent, KT is still the glue of our team."
Kirkpatrick, who is getting some interest from Appalachian State, Charlotte and Hampton University, is averaging 12 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals per game.
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound senior has had his best games in the team's biggest moments, scoring 18 points and the game-winner in double overtime in a 73-71 victory over Rock Hill in the Y.C. Winborn Charity Classic Christmas tournament final.
Kirkpatrick's biggest game this season came at defending conference champion Butler, when he posted 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals to lead his team to a 71-66 road win.
Kirkpatrick now has his team (15-4, 7-2 going into Rocky River game) tied for first place with a little more than a week to go in the regular season.
With three games remaining in the regular season, South Meck controls its own destiny with contests against the SW4A's other top three teams: at Myers Park Friday, and at home against Butler Feb. 7 and East Meck Feb. 10.
Unlike four seasons ago, when Kirkpatrick came to South, both home games are expected to have a near capacity crowd.
"For us seniors, winning conference and the (SW4A) tournament is a big deal and we want it bad after all we've been through," Kirkpatrick said. "All of us got a taste of winning last year and we want to finish our career with a great playoff run."