With five of his top seven scorers gone from last season’s team, you’d think South Mecklenburg boys basketball coach John Fitch would be preparing himself for a down season.
But that’s far from the case for this season’s Sabres. Fitch has been encouraged by the progress his team has made in off-season workouts and is excited to kick off the season at Independence on Nov. 19.
“What a group of kids I have this year,” Fitch said. “I don’t know how we’re going to do but I’m telling you what, I’ve got 16 to 18 kids that have been religiously coming (to open gym workouts) since March and they’ve been working hard.”
It also helps that South Meck’s front line will be one of the newly-formed So. Meck 8 conference’s best. Headlining the bunch is 6-foot-6 junior Grant Hedberg, a skilled big man who averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds during the Sabres’ last eight games a year ago.
“Grant’s a really good player and he really came on for us,” Fitch said. “I told him, ‘Look, we don’t need you to score like that for us to be successful,’ because I didn’t want him to feel all of that pressure.
“But he’s definitely going to be a big part of what we’re going to do.”
While Hedberg will have plenty of influence on South Meck’s season, he’s far from the only player who will contribute this year.
Along with Hedberg, the Sabres have a couple of other big men who will play huge roles this season, even if area coaches don’t know much about them.
Myles Wilkins, a transfer from Atlanta, is 6-foot-7 and will team with JV call-up Quadrien Jamison, a 6-6 athlete, to help form the strength of the Sabres.
“Quadrien is 6-6, he has long arms, but the improvement he’s made is (remarkable),” Fitch said. “He’s done a lot of work with his offensive moves around the basket and he’s going to be a real surprise.”
Jamison will be a plus, but the mild-mannered Wilkins is the wild card of the Sabres’ big men and will be a key to their season.
“Nobody knows about him,” Fitch said of Wilkins. “He wears a size 18 shoe and he’s probably going to end up being 6-11. He’s athletic, he’s strong, he’s going to help us out a lot on both sides of the floor.”
While the South Meck frontcourt is probably the team’s biggest strength, its backcourt is full of promising players ready to make names for themselves.
Along with Hedberg, senior off guard Mac Schott is one of two returning starters and, Fitch said, an integral part of what the Sabres will be trying to do.
“He’s a great kid,” Fitch said. “He’s a scrapper, he gets you those dirty rebounds, the charges, he’s my best defensive player who will guard the best guy. He just does all the right things for you.”
Schott will be joined at the wing by Nakyree Stephens and JV call-up Jalen Blakeney.
With Schott playing more off the ball, Fitch will turn to guards Max Bazin, a junior, and sophomore Khayleb Connelly to run the point. Bazin gained experience last year and is a tough defender who can play either guard spot or fill in at small forward, while Connelly is exceptionally quick and has a knack for scoring – something Fitch wouldn’t mind as long as the offense is executed soundly.
“Khayleb is a true point guard, but he’s a scorer, too,” Fitch said. “I told him that I don’t mind if he scores for us, but I want it in the flow (of the offense). He’s quick and he’s a good distributor and a good defender, too.”
With his collection of big men and talented guards, Fitch is hoping his players will buy into what he’s been asking them to do. So far, they have done just that.
“We need to work our offense more and work it into the post before we jack up a shot,” Schott said, as Fitch’s face lit up as if that were the answer he was seeking.
“I think we have a lot of consistent players. Our point guard is young, but we have young guys who got experience last year and I think that will help us,” Schott added.
But, at least offensively, it all starts inside with their three talented posts.
“We’re deep at our bigs because we have me and we added Myles, so that’s probably our strength,” Hedberg said.
Hedberg continued his thought with another point Fitch had to love hearing.
“We had good on-ball defenders, but we didn’t have good team defense. That will be a key,” Hedberg said. “We have to work on our defense a lot. It’s not that it’s bad, but we have to get everything down with our rotations and making sure we’re all on the same page.”
As far as workouts have gone so far, it seems these Sabres, maybe more than ever, are on the same page.
“They hit the nail on the head,” Fitch said. “We’re going to demand that they start the ball inside. That doesn’t mean we need them to always be looking to score, but if they can learn to start the ball inside, it will free everything up.”
And, Fitch said, when some of the newcomers and JV call-ups learn the offensive philosophies he’s expecting to execute and, more importantly, get their defensive assignments in order, they have a chance to challenge for a So. Meck 8 title.
“Our question will be the guard play,” Fitch said. “But with our defense and when we buy into getting it inside and letting the offense run inside-out and have the bigs score some, too, we can get it going.
“It’s encouraging. These kids are working hard, they’re together and they’re buying into what we’re telling them.”