William Robinson, head basketball coach at Vance High School, has been coaching a long time and has seen talent come and go.
He thinks this year his Cougars are a team that can be one of his best if they continue to come together.
Robinson, entering his 25th season as a head coach, knows this team can be special. Five underclassmen start, including a freshman and a sophomore, and the team is 6-3 so far, despite having played all but one game on the road.
"Our guys have really embraced what I am teaching them so far, and we think and hope that playing all these games in hostile crowds will help us in the long run," Robinson said.
"I know that we don't need to worry about our guys when we go play in another house, even though I am going to have to make them re-learn their own locker rooms."
The Cougars are road-tested, young and athletic, despite losing five of their top seven scorers from last year. Junior Caleb Davis and sophomore Derick Brewer, both part-time starters a season ago, lead a young team that's hungry to make a name for itself in a talented conference.
Brewer is the Cougars' leading scorer, at more than 17 points per game. He also averages 3.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. Last year the 6-1, 170-pound shooting guard averaged 5.7 points and 2.4 assists per game in a supporting role.
Davis, a 6-0 point guard, has upped his averages from just under 5 points and 3 assists to 10 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 4.7 assists per game.
"Both of these guys started some and got some experience last year," Robinson said. "They worked hard in their off-season workouts and on skill development and have turned themselves into really good players.
"We expected them to take their game to the next level, and they have been able to do that so far. They have transitioned well."
Coming into the year, Davis said, he knew he was going to have to be more of a leader and looked forward to the chance. That made for an easy transition to being more vocal on the court and in the locker room.
While the two leading scorers have contributed more in all aspects, Brewer said the makeup of this team is very different from last year.
"We have started out pretty well, but it is totally different. Guys aren't in the same spots as they were last year," Brewer said. "We have done well so far, but we have a different caliber team with different pieces to the puzzle.
"Last year we had some bigs, but this year we are a lot quicker and a little smaller - way more of a guard-oriented team."
Brewer said he and Davis knew coming in that the roster had experienced turnover and expected they would have the most experience on the team. But other Cougars, too, have contributed so far.
Daryl Roby has led a great supporting cast with 7 points and 6 rebounds per game. Jalen Latter, the Cougars' quarterback on the football field, averages about 6 points, and Torin Dorn averages 6 points and 3 rebounds for the Cougars.
Despite their lack of size, Brewer said, the Cougars are quicker than last year on both sides of the ball. Through their first nine games, no outcome has been decided by more than 10 points, except in their blowout win over Shining Light Academy. They have lost close games to Mallard Creek, South Mecklenburg and Hough by a combined seven points.
"We like to press and get out and run, get up and down the court," Brewer said. "You could say it is a work in progress, and we are still figuring out how each of us play. We are getting better and can see the improvement every day.
"We need to talk more and could be more aggressive on defense, but it will come. If we put together solid and consistent effort, we will be fine," Brewer said. "We need to play all four quarters, though, because we have jumped out to big leads before, only to have the other teams come back. We are looking to be more consistent."
Davis said his team needs to focus more on defense and to box out and rebound better. Other than that, they are fine, he said, and will be a factor in the tough I-Meck 4A conference, which features Mooresville, state champion West Charlotte and a number of improved teams.
Vance belongs in the mix and has already opened some eyes.
"These are great students and great kids," coach Robinson said. "We are young right now, but that label will go away. We have some skilled players on this team who have a chance to play at the next level if they keep improving and working hard. They have bright futures, and we are going to be fine by the end of the year."
If anyone knows, it's Robinson, and he has two young and talented players to build for the future with. The Cougars don't want to wait that long, though, and they have a chance to make some noise in the conference this year.