CHARLOTTE – When the season started, there weren’t many people outside of the Charlotte Latin boys locker room who would have picked the Hawks to represent the CISAA in the NCISAA Final Four 4A on Feb. 22 and 23 in Raleigh, and that’s fine with coach Chris Berger.
“We are underdogs, and we kind of like that role,” he said. “We like to stay humble and under the radar, and state tournament time you just never know what’s going to happen.”
The Hawks had finished the regular season 15-9 and second in the conference with a 6-4 record. That was good enough for a first-round bye.
When Metrolina Christian – a team that won 22 games – came calling, the Hawks were ready.
They sprinted out to a 23-10 first quarter lead and never looked back, cruising to an 80-59 win.
The win pushed the Hawks into the Final Four for the first time in 15 seasons, back when Berger, the former Charlotte Latin point guard, was an assistant under long-time coach Jerry Faulkner.
“It hasn’t seemed that long,” Berger said. “We’ve had some really good teams over the last 15 years, and I’ve been honored to coach a lot of great players and teams over that time, but we just couldn’t seem to get over that hump and get to the Final Four.”
Junior all-CISAA first team point guard Randy Johnson scored 19 points and added five rebounds and five assists to lead the charge against Metrolina.
Sophomore star-in-the-making Graham Calton scored 23 points and added nine rebounds. Junior David Felkner scored 16 points and grabbed nine boards to lead the Hawk attack, despite missing one of its most potent scorers.
In a Jan. 18 three-point win over Country Day, senior captain John Beecy broke his leg. He’s had successful surgery in the weeks since, but the Hawks have had to adjust to not having his 15 points and five rebounds per game.
While Johnson (18.4 points, 5.8 assists and four rebounds per game) and Calton (13.6 points, seven rebounds) have been outstanding all year, it’s been nice seeing guys fill in for Beecy, Berger said.
“With him being out, we’ve had guys step up and it’s been next man up principles,” Berger said. “I’m really happy with the guys who were sort of in the rotation and not starting, but they have now stepped up.”
It’s been guys like Felkner (6.8 points, three rebounds) and fellow juniors Bennett Smith (nine points, seven rebounds) and Grayson Clements (6.5 points, 5.8 rebounds) who have helped carry the load, along with Ryan Brouse and William Lloyd who play their roles perfectly and provide senior leadership.
While most of their talent is young – the Hawks have just three seniors – an opposing coach recently told Berger his players are more poised than their age and experience suggest.
“We take pride in that,” Berger said. “We have been tested, we have been in tough situations and hopefully it’s going to pay off if we get into a situation where we need to get a bucket or we need a stop or something.
“This team has been real special and they’re playing real well right now. We’ve faced some adversity like a lot of teams do, but I’ve been real fortunate to work with these guys.”
The Hawks will face Christ School, a team that is 15-13 this season, but fresh off a win over No. 1 seed Charlotte Christian.
The Greenies have won five straight and have beaten the Hawks each of the eight times the teams have met since 2007.
“Christ School is playing very well,” Berger said. “I’ve had the chance to watch them a couple of times recently and they’re firing on all pistons. It’s going to be a big challenge for us to go up there and compete against them but I think we’re excited to go and see what we can do.”
The win would be especially meaningful for Berger, who has been the head coach since 2010. But he’s deflecting that for now and focusing on getting his team ready to win the school’s first title since 2004, their last trip to the Final Four.
“We’re going to go up loose and there’s going to be no stress,” he said. “It is special to represent the school that I love so much and to see these guys work so hard. The cheesy old saying is ‘Hard work works,’ but it’s not cheesy and it’s a fact with these guys. They’ve worked hard and it’s paying off for them.”