Charlotte Christian boys look to build on tradition

by C. Jemal Horton

Thanks to a tough early-season schedule and talented players such as Clemson recruit Patrick Rooks (15), Charlotte Christian is undefeated in conference play. (C. Jemal Horton/SCW photo)

It’s not as if the Charlotte Christian boys basketball team was losing.

Far from it, actually.

The Knights had a commanding 20-point lead over Providence Day at halftime of their Jan. 27 game at Christian’s Lamb/Johnson Gymnasium. But with a precocious and battle-tested squad, and members of the school’s 1991-92 state championship team watching from the stands, Knights coach Shonn Brown wasn’t about to let his players become content.

“At halftime, Providence Day had nine offensive rebounds, so I had to kind of dig into my team and try a little different method,” Brown said. “I brought in three former players, who talked to them about defense. They just said, ‘Hey, Charlotte Christian’s always prided itself on being great defensively,’ and then they just gave little examples from throughout the years.”

The words of Charlotte Christian alums Ben Walton, Clint Irwin and Reid Fronk clearly helped embolden the 2011-12 Knights, who went on to win, 80-45.

It was yet another monumental step for a young group of players that desperately wants to live up to its rich legacy – a legacy that includes a state championship with players such as former N.C. State star Todd Fuller in 1992 and, more recently, league titles paced by current NBA player Stephen Curry and Duke University starter Seth Curry.

At this point, there aren’t many reasons to think building on that winning tradition isn’t an attainable goal.

The Knights (17-6, 4-0 in the Charlotte Independent Schools Athletic Association) have a stranglehold on the conference standings. And although they’d have to slay a slew of powerhouses to emerge with a state title at the end of the month, the Knights, despite lacking the height the aforementioned programs boast, can’t help but see themselves as bona fide contenders for the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 3A championship.

One reason for such optimism is a tough early-season schedule, which has included matchups with some of the state’s best teams, as well as games against nationally recognized programs during out-of-state tournaments.

There were the in-state losses to High Point Christian (23-1 record), Greensboro Day (20-2) and Raleigh Ravenscroft (19-3). And then, in tournaments in Tennessee and Georgia, the Knights fell to Ohio’s Mentor High (13-1), Tennessee’s Christ Presbyterian Academy (22-2) and Georgia’s Norcross High (10-8). The combined record of the team’s to defeat Christian: 107-17.

“It’s been tough, even when we’re losing to good teams, but it’s going to help us for (the state tournament),” Christian center Ryan Potocnik said. “That’s our goal every year, and we feel we can achieve that. We’ve gotten a lot better because of our schedule, and we’ve gotten a lot closer as a team. In the end, we’re hoping that pays off for us.”

It also helps that opponents really don’t have a defensive focal point when taking on Christian. Four Knights average double figures in scoring, led by junior guard Patrick Rooks’ 14 points per game, senior Ben Richter (12.0), sophomore Matthew Fisher-Davis (11.3) and Potocnik (11.1).

The 6-foot-7 Potocnik also leads the Knights in rebounding (eight per game), blocked shots (1.9) and steals (1.7) while ranking third in assists (2.2).

“Ryan Potocnik has been huge for us,” Brown said. “He does everything – he finishes, he rebounds, he blocks shots, he’s a great help defender.”

Brown said his squad is filled with players possessing the talent to post gaudier statistics but are willing to sacrifice that for team goals. Junior swingman Eric Lynch, for instance, is one of southern Mecklenburg’s most efficient outside shooters, knocking down 47 percent of his 3-pointers. But because he’s one of the squad’s tallest players, at 6-3, Brown has asked Lynch to spend more time in the paint. As a result, Lynch ranks second on the team with 4.2 rebounds per outing.

“Eric has said, ‘Coach, whatever role you guys have designed for me, I’m going to try to fulfill that,’” Brown said. “He’s done a very good job. We have all kinds of guys who have made those sacrifices, like Dez Lawrence, who tries to set the pace for us on defense, and (sophomore guard) Titus Moore comes in and gives us a lot of energy. He’s trying to add more firepower.”

But while the Knights boast a balanced attack, the high-flying Rooks has star potential. The 6-2 left-hander has the ability to explode past defenders for awe-inspiring finger rolls and dunks, or pull up and levitate above foes for silky-smooth jump shots. Rooks already has accepted a scholarship to play at Clemson when he graduates in 2013, but Brown believes Rooks can get even better, which, consequently makes the Knights more dangerous.

“Patrick is still continuing to learn,” Brown said. “We’ve run him some at (point guard) to expand his mind in reference to the game. He’s trying to take advantage of that, and we’re continuing to push him. We’re saying, ‘Right when you think it’s hard, we’re going to push you right through another level. Hard is just another level, and if we’re really going to try to prepare you with our team today, and also looking at the big picture down the road, you’ve got to be one of the hardest-working guys that we have. You have to want to do that. You can have it in your head. But if it’s not in your heart, you’re not going to do it.’

“But he’s trying, he’s pushing himself to do that,” Brown added. “That means good things for our team.”

The Knights have their hurdles to overcome, starting with being such a smallish, guard-oriented team in a private-school division known for its towering rosters. But they see that as a challenge to be more disciplined with their shot selection and more accurate when they pull the trigger.

And they certainly see it as an opportunity to live up to their program’s rich tradition. After all, the players never know when their coach is going to sic some former Knights on them, even if it’s when they’re up by 20 points at halftime.

“We try and soak up as much of the information anybody associated with the program will give us,” said freshman guard Trey Phills, who ranks second on the team by making 42 percent of his 3-pointers. “Former players are always leaving us with positive tips to stay with, like working hard and hustling and diving on the floor. It’s always a good learning experience at Charlotte Christian. I feel very blessed to be a part of a program this good.

“We’re very talented, and I feel if we all come together as a team, we can go farther than what we’re doing right now. All it takes is a couple of tweaks here and there, and we’re right there in the state championship.”

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