They know there still is plenty of work to do.
If any south Charlotte boys basketball players are aware of that, it’s the Charlotte Latin Hawks, a squad that features athletes who toiled through an 8-17 record last year – a campaign that included a nightmarish 0-8 record in conference play and a number of performances in front of sparse home crowds.
It was weird juxtaposition for a proud program that, not all that long ago, regularly registered 20-win seasons and even won back-to-back state titles in the early 2000s.
Entering the 2011-12 season, coach Chris Berger reminded his players that hard work was one thing that would give them an opportunity to inch their way back toward those Charlotte Latin glory days. So when loose balls are up for grabs during games, the Hawks attack them as if dinner that night depends on it. When they’re practicing free throws in after-school workouts, it’s as if a trip to the Final Four is on the line.
As a consequence, the Hawks sport a 13-7 record and are ranked sixth in South Charlotte Weekly’s Southern Mecklenburg Super 7 heading into their Friday, Jan. 27 home game against No. 1 Charlotte Catholic.
No, Latin’s win-loss record isn’t exactly stellar. But to the Hawks, it symbolizes progress. It’s something that’s reinvigorated interest among non-parents and, perhaps most important, created an atmosphere that would make ghosts of Hawk teams pasts extremely proud.
“Our goal every day is to improve,” Berger said. “We’re not necessarily looking at the wins and losses, but we feel that if we improve every day in practice and ball games, the (wins) will come. The guys have been with me for the last couple of years, and they’re starting to get all the schemes and all the things we like to do – we call it The Latin Way.
“And we’re trying to live up to all that tradition and all these (championship) banners we have here in the Belk Gym. These guys are doing a great job doing that.”
The Hawks have won seven of their past eight games heading into Friday’s showdown with Charlotte Catholic, with their only blemish in that span being an 84-67 loss to Charlotte Independent Schools Athletic Association foe Charlotte Christian.
Still, the Hawks hardly have let that quell their enthusiasm and energy in this turnaround season. Sure, they know it will take uncommon effort to return the program to the successes of the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons, when Charlotte Latin won back-to-back N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 3A championships.
But these Hawks are human, too. And they’re enjoying the ride, as many of the players embrace the possibility of seeing the program flourish the way it did when many of them still were playing rec-league ball.
As is the case with many of his teammates, sophomore Rusty Reigel is a Latin “lifer” who watched the team a lower-school student. Reigel’s brother, Will, now playing at Davidson College, once was a standout with the Hawks.
“It’s been really cool this year because, growing up, we were watching guys like (current NBA player) Anthony Morrow and Derek Truesdale and Brian Williams and Will,” Reigel said. “It’s just been really fun playing under the same lights that they did and helping the program get back to that level. That’s something we all want.”
That’s especially the case for the squad’s four seniors: guard Grayson Foster and forwards Jon Gilmartin, Michael Todd and Matt Tome. And many players credit the quartet for setting the tone for success long before the season began.
“The leadership of our four seniors has been great,” said 6-foot-7 junior center Jacob Nabatoff. “We knew that from the start when we first came out to practices. Our practices have been high-tempo. Everyone has just been working hard under the senior leadership. They’re truly doing a great job leading this team.”
Nabatoff has been a force at times in the middle, using his status as one of the tallest players in the CISAA – not to mention the poise and athleticism to be a wide receiver and quarterback on the Latin football team – to block shots and create different scoring opportunities for the Hawks.
The outside shooting of junior guard Adam Herrmann and Reigel has helped the Hawks score points in bunches, and a team-wide toughness also has helped put Charlotte Latin in position to reach the state tournament after a one-year hiatus because of the 8-17 mark last season.
“I think we’ve matured a lot,” Herrmann said. “Coach Berger has done a great job with us in the offseason and (during in-season) practices and games getting us ready. The growth has been amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team that has molded together as a unit as well as this team has. We all know and trust each other, and I think it’s paid off.”
As is the case with his players, helping Latin bounce back to a high level is personal for Berger. The third-year coach played for the Hawks in the late 1980s and became an assistant coach under his former mentor, Jerry Faulkner, in 1994.
“In the late 80s, we had some really good teams,” Berger said. “They were very similar to the guys this year and the guys from the last couple of years: hard-working guys who made the extra pass, played hard-nosed defense and really supported one another. It’s what a team, we believe, should be.
“Our ultimate goal, from day one, is to qualify for our state tournament. We worked hard in the summertime and in the fall and in pre-season conditioning. We actually feel we have a good shot to qualify this year. They take the top 12 teams, and we’ve beaten some teams in our association, so we feel really confident we will be one of the 12.
“It’s awfully exciting.”