Christie Mitchell knew she had her work cut out for her when stepped in as the coach of South Mecklenburg girls’ basketball team in 2011.
But Mitchell had a plan, and as she enters her third year as coach, she’s beginning to see that plan move in the right direction.
The Sabres basketball team used to reign as one of the most competitive teams in the state, winning the Class 4A state championship in 2006. But it was downhill from there, and their record has dropped to 43-122 in the last six seasons.
But don’t let the dismal statistics fool you – Mitchell says her girls are right where they need to be in order to put the Sabres back on the competitive map.
“When I came in as coach, we only won three games the first year I was here. Last year we won eight,” she said. “We’re making progress and moving in the right direction. We’re still a long way from where I want us to be, but it’s a rebuilding process.”
The Sabres began with a promising start last year before dropping 11 games in a row – a turn of events that was tough to recover from. They made a brief appearance in the Southwestern 4A tournament, but dropped their first game, 49-33, to Butler, ending any hopes of advancing.
But Mitchell is confident that the 2013 team won’t disappoint. A statewide conference realignment pushed South Meck into So. Meck 8 4A play, which will help provide the Sabres with a fresh start.
“This team is definitely going to be different,” Mitchell said. “We have a great group of awesome kids. They’re in the gym every day, they’re working hard every day, and there are no attitude problems. They all want it.”
The Sabres stand out from their competition this year in part because of their age. After losing only two seniors from last season, the Sabres will again boast an exceptionally young team, with only two seniors and one junior returning.
Five-foot-eight senior forward Mary Quick will assume more of a leadership role as the sole returning fourth-year player of the girls team.
“She’s a great leader and one of the best three-point shooters on the team,” Mitchell said. “I’m going to be looking to her for leadership qualities.”
Six-foot-one junior Nnenna Okum played sparingly last season, but as an upperclassman will start at center and be crucial when it comes to interior scoring, defense and pulling down rebounds.
But the majority of the work will fall on the shoulders of the freshmen and sophomores – and for the Sabres, that’s a good thing. Mitchell has the advantage of triple threat sophomore guards Ali Fitch, Courtney Sanderson and Aja Stevens, who all have valuable varsity experience.
Fitch, whose father played at South Meck before moving on to Appalachian State and now coaches the Sabres’ boys team, and Sanderson both started on varsity as freshmen last season. They averaged nine points a game each, which was the second highest of anyone on the team. But despite the excitement of playing at the varsity level, the young starters weren’t entirely pleased with the results of last season.
“We were a new team,” Fitch said. “Brand new. We were just freshman and we were just starting out and trying to get to know each other. The competition was really hard and we played Myers Park, Providence, (Ardrey Kell) and some really competitive teams. And I don’t think we were really gelling the way we should, as a team. But I think the whole new team aspect was the big issue.
“We definitely played some big teams with a lot of talent. Some games we should have won, but they were competitive teams.”
The two veteran guards will have the additional help of Stevens, who just moved to the area from Salemburg, N.C., this year. Stevens played on the varsity team as a freshman at Lakewood High School, and comes with a winning pedigree. Lakewood went 27-2 and undefeated in 1A conference play last season before falling to East Columbus by four points in the state semi-finals.
“I’m excited,” Stevens said, of moving to a bigger conference stacked with competition. “We’ve been working really hard so far and I think it’s going to pay off.”
With Stevens, Fitch and Sanderson leading the team, Mitchell is excited about the possibilities their talent will bring to the Sabre team in upcoming years.
“By the time these three sophomores are seniors, we should be state contenders,” Mitchell said. “And that’s where we want to be. That’s the good thing about a young team. We’re going to have everything we need with experience.
“Ali and Courtney started last year as freshmen and played the majority of every game. With them having the experience from last year of already playing varsity, this will be nothing for them this year.”
Mitchell added that, as the sophomore trio develops, they should each be highly recruited by the time their senior year comes – a promising thought for the up-and-coming Sabre program.
“They have what it takes,” Mitchell said. “They have the work ethic, they have the attitude, they have the talent and they definitely have the grades. They are both 3.8, 4.0 students.”
Struggles on the court haven’t stretched into the classroom for the South Meck girls. The N.C. High School Athletic Association honored the varsity team last year as being a “Scholar Team.” In order to receive the accolade, teams must have a cumulative grade point average of 3.6 or higher. The Sabres boasted a 3.7 GPA and, out of nine varsity players, six were honored as scholar athletes.
“It was one of our biggest accomplishments,” Mitchell said. “You win first in the classroom. Once you win in the classroom, we can start winning on the court.”
And that’s exactly what the Sabres are looking to do as regular season play begins in the upcoming weeks.
“Our team is good this year,” Sanderson said. “We’re in a new conference. We’re gelling as a team. We’re going to look a lot better. We’re excited.”