There were two watershed moments in the last 21/2 months that let coach Lavar Batts Sr. know his Jay M. Robinson High School boys’ basketball team had the potential for a good season.
One, understandably, was a victory against MECKA 8 4A rival North Mecklenburg on Jan.6, when the Vikings were the No.1-ranked 4A team in the state.
The other however, was a nonconference defeat to Hickory Ridge on Dec.10, the Bulldogs’ first setback of the season.
“It made me realize these guys understood they could be great,” said Batts, “because they took the loss to heart. It hurt (them). I felt that was a good thing. They didn’t want to feel that way again.”
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Robinson has managed to avoid those ill feelings most of the season. The Bulldogs finished the regular season 18-6 and would have shared the conference title had they won their finale against West Charlotte on Feb.12.
Still, Robinson entered the state playoffs with its first winning record in three years. The Bulldogs made a case for being the best team in Cabarrus County, which will be much more important next year when Robinson is reclassified as a 3A school and will join the South Piedmont Conference.
Coming off last year’s 10-15 mark, Robinson had enough returning talent to lend itself to optimism. Returning for the 2014-15 season were guard Lavar Batts Jr., a MaxPreps freshman All-American; rising junior guard Jordan McKenzie, who has drawn attention from Division I colleges; and rising senior Conner Boothe, who had emerged as an all-conference sharp-shooting scorer last year.
But Joe Pike, who had been Robinson’s only head coach since the school opened in 2001, resigned at the end of the school year. The logical choice to replace him was Batts Sr., who had been his assistant and junior varsity coach for four seasons.
“Coach Pike is a great teacher of the game,” said Batts Sr. “What I think I bring different is more action and less teaching. He was pinpoint on detail. I’m a shower and want to get after it; that’s my way of teaching.”
Batts’ plan was to energize the team through extensive conditioning and intensity. Not all his players were fans of that approach in the preseason, he said.
The new coach also wanted to increase the team’s tempo. Without a true post player, Batts knew the Bulldogs would have to rely on a quick pace.
Batts Jr., McKenzie and Boothe already were known in the county’s basketball circles, but Batts Sr. said he also was excited about a new member of what he would call “the big four.”
When Daniel Spencer transferred to Robinson in January 2014, it was his third high school in less than three years. Two years ago he started for Northwest Cabarrus’ varsity as a freshman and averaged just more than six points a game.
His family moved to Concord’s district before his sophomore year. He played several games for the Spiders before moving to Robinson, where he had to sit out the season because of the transfer.
Batts knew Spencer from the days when his son and Spencer played at Northwest Cabarrus Middle School, and Spencer was eager to prove his worth to his new team.
Spencer was never more motivated than on Jan.21, when Robinson faced Concord in a nonconference game. Spencer erupted for a season-high 44 points, and Batts Jr. added 26 as the Bulldogs beat the Spiders 98-77.
For the season, Spencer and Batts Jr., a slasher who can also hit the 3-point shot, both score an average of 18 points per game. McKenzie and Boothe both average 11.7 ppg.
“I’m having a way better season than I thought I would,” said Spencer. “I wanted to play defense, rebound and score a few points. People have started to notice me. I’ve had some bigger games than I thought I would. It feels good being a part of a team I know can use me.”
Some of Robinson’s key role players are starting senior forward Jarod Jernigan – a good defender and rebounder – and reserves Ethan Steinbacher, Jackson Raper, Markel Dalton and Marquel Manning.
The Bulldogs won their first five games before losing to Hickory Ridge in December and were 9-3 before their milestone victory against North Meck on Jan.6. That win was proven to not be a fluke after the Bulldogs upended the Vikings again Feb.3
“This season is a lot different,” said Boothe. “The past two seasons we’ve struggled. This season has been fun, because it’s always funner when you’re winning. I’ll always look back at it as one of the best experiences of my life so far.”
The state playoffs were scheduled to begin Feb.24.
Joe Habina is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Joe? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.