Catholic boys sizzling heading into Olympic showdown
Since opening the season with a loss to South Mecklenburg, the Charlotte Catholic boys basketball team has hit its stride and won 12 of the past 13 games, en route to becoming the No. 1 team in South Charlotte Weekly’s Super 7 boys rankings.
On Jan. 6, the Cougars (12-2) defeated MEGA 7 3A/4A conference rival Berry Academy, 72-70, and followed that with an 11-point win over East Gaston on Jan. 10, setting up one of the most important games they have played in a long time.
The Cougars host powerful Olympic High (16-0) on Friday, Jan. 13.
Charlotte Catholic coach Mike King said he always thought his Cougars had size and talent, but this year they have something else.
“We have experience, as a lot of these guys have been with us for two or three years, and we have always had a good core of players,” he said. “There is a very fine line between being good and being really good, and this year we seem to have the ‘it’ factor for whatever reason.”
Senior 6-foot-5 guard Robert Champion has led the way, averaging 21 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. Six-foot-seven junior forward Mark Pollack averages more than 14 points and five rebounds, and 6-6 senior forward Jack Wohlfert contributes more than eight points and seven rebounds.
The Trojans won both meetings with Catholic a season ago and have won 44 consecutive conference games overall.
“I don’t think I will have to tell my guys who we are playing and that this is a big game. I know (Olympic) will be well-coached and ready for us,” King said. “I like our team this year and I’ll take my guys against anyone. We will be up to the challenge, and the kids will be ready to go.”
King said that, in the end, Friday’s matchup with Olympic is just another game in a long season.
“But we seem to get up for them each time we play them,” King said. “It seems like Olympic is our biggest rival in all sports, especially in our conference.”
King said a Cougars win would be a big confidence boost, but he expects the game to be competitive and close throughout.
“I would be lying if I said beating those guys wouldn’t mean a little something extra to us, because it certainly would,” King said. “We have to try to match their athleticism and have to make sure that we are staying in the moment. If we catch a break here or there, you never know what can happen.”
East Meck boys win fourth in a row
Any four-game win streak is nice, especially when three of the wins come in Southwestern 4A conference play. But East Mecklenburg boys basketball coach Jason Grube is more satisfied with how his team has managed the feat.
Since their 70-64 loss to Berry in the Freedom Holiday Invitational on Dec. 27, the Eagles have held each of their four opponents to 45 points or less and have beaten conference foes Rocky River (49-33 on Jan. 3), Ardrey Kell (54-36 on Jan. 6) and Providence (69-44 on Jan. 9).
It’s a welcome improvement, said Grube, especially after dropping games to Myers Park and Butler to start league play 1-2. Now, the Eagles have improved to 8-5 overall and 4-2 in the conference.
“We had a double-digit lead at Myers Park and let that one slip away,” Grube said. “We didn’t play East Meck basketball against Butler at our place, and we kind of went back to the drawing board. We were a little loosey-goosey defensively prior to (the win over Ardrey Kell).
“That’s where it starts,” Grube continued. “If we can defend and make things difficult, I think once we get our offense clicking, we can be dangerous. It starts on defense for us.”
Grube has gotten a boost from senior Miles Leathers, who led the Eagles with 13 points against Ardrey Kell. The performance, said Grube, was a good sign with conference play heating up.
“He’s been a great leader for us,” Grube said of Leathers. “(The players) learn by their senior year that it’s their time. That’s what (good East Meck players of the past) did is kind of develop steadily. And then, their senior year if they do things the right way, they reap the rewards.
“That’s what we’ve really impressed upon the guys lately, that the seniors need to step up.”
Ardrey Kell girls still improving
There was plenty for the Ardrey Kell girls basketball team to celebrate on Jan. 6, starting with forward Christelle Shembo scoring the 1,000th point of her career. The Knights also downed East Mecklenburg, 58-29, to improve to 13-3 overall and 5-1 in Southwestern 4A conference play.
But Knights coach Tina Lawrence couldn’t help but notice some warts in the performance. For starters, the Knights hit only nine of their 23 free throws (41 percent), and committed 18 fouls.
“We still have some things to work on,” said Lawrence, who noted that she was pleased with a pair of offensive charges her players drew against the Eagles. “The beauty of that is we haven’t peaked. We’ve got some time to tweak some things. (Coach) Ziggy (Barjona) has done a nice job with East Meck – they gave us some trouble in that first quarter. We’re pleased with the effort (of our players). They came back and fought and showed a little aggression, which is always good.”
Knights shooting for improvement
Though his team entered December’s Hardwood Classic with a 3-7 record, Ardrey Kell boys basketball coach Mike Craft thought his team had turned a corner by winning two of its three games at the tournament. Craft had hoped the wins would provide some much-needed momentum when league play resumed after the winter break.
Instead, the Knights have dropped three consecutive games to conference foes Butler, East Mecklenburg and Rocky River. Headed into their Friday, Jan. 13 game at Providence, the Knights are 5-11, 1-5 in Southwestern 4A conference play.
The main culprit for the sub-par record, said Craft, is the team’s poor shooting. The Knights are hitting just 38 percent of their field goals and 27 percent from 3-point territory. Free throws are also a concern. Ardrey Kell has connected on just 56 percent of its shots from the line.
The shooting woes have plagued the Knights, particularly in the late stages of some big games. The Knights lost to Myers Park after holding a seven-point lead after three quarters. They also fell to Butler after being down just two points at halftime.
“That’s what a young team does,” Craft said. “They don’t know how to gather their composure and be able to get a stop and a score like we preach. We don’t want to give them excuses, though. We’ve got to come to play. We’ve got to figure it out. We’ll keep working.”
The Knights will have to make their strides without senior captain Elvis Kisonas, who will miss the rest of the season after having surgery on his broken nose.
East Meck girls focusing on progress
Even in a 58-29 loss to Ardrey Kell on Jan. 6, first-year East Mecklenburg girls basketball coach Ziggy Barjona said he had plenty of reasons to smile.
After taking over in August, well after most teams have started their off-season workouts, Barjona said his young squad’s progress hasn’t been measured in wins and losses but in day-to-day improvement. For example, the fact that the Eagles managed just 13 points through the third quarter against Ardrey Kell was overshadowed by the fact that they tallied 16 fourth-quarter points.
“When you come into a situation where you’re playing the likes of Ardrey Kell, who is well-established, I felt like we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish,” said Barjona. “In the middle of the third quarter to the end of the game, we played hard. We finally settled down and got a chance to bring some things to the game that we could build on in practice. It could’ve been much worse.”
Barjona, who previously was an assistant coach, said that instead of suffering 50- and 60-point blowouts as they did last season, the Eagles have been competitive this year and even had chances to improve on their 4-10 record.
“We’re just not finishing,” said Barjona. “But that’s part of the process.”
The Eagles rebounded with an 80-41 win over Providence on Jan. 9.