CHARLOTTE – Charlotte Latin hasn’t won a boys basketball conference title since the 2007-08 season, two years before former Hawk point guard Chris Berger rose from an assistant to become the head coach.
Berger has had some really good teams in the decade since, but there have been dominant runs from Charlotte Christian (2007-08 through 2011-12 and again in 2018-19) and Providence Day (2012-13 through 2017-18) during his time as the coach.
But this season, more than ever since the Hawks last stood atop the CISAA, the league seems there for the taking after Christian lost four of five starters and Providence Day has to absorb the loss of point guard and leading scorer Cyncier Harrison, who transferred just before the season.
So who’s the league favorite this year?
You may have to look no further than the Hawks, who return four starters including all-state point guard Randy “RJ” Johnson to lead the charge.
After opening last season with a 6-5 record, you could almost feel the momentum shift as the Hawks seemed to catch fire over their Christmas tournament where they won their final two games.
That sparked a 10-4 run the rest of the way before the Hawks added to their loss total with a defeat in the NCISAA semifinals.
“We didn’t finish games early in the year last season,” Johnson said. “I feel like later in the season we learned how to win. Each year we’ve gotten better and I think we like the way winning feels.”
The Hawks finished 16-10 last season, but their late-season run is promising with six seniors, including four starters, back.
Johnson was terrific last season, earning all-state honors after averaging 18 points and 5.5 assists.
David Felkner, a 6-2 senior, improved as the season went on and, once he was inserted into the starting five to compensate for an injury, seemed to up his production.
Felkner averaged 5.5 points per game for the year but scored double figures down the stretch on a relatively consistent basis.
Bennett Smith, a 6-5 senior, averaged nine points and about seven rebounds and is a good interior defender as is Grayson Clements, a 6-5 key reserve.
Brad Hull and fellow 6-3 guard Harry Grams can help, especially after Grams was an all-conference player at Whitefish Bay High in Wisconsin and should add to the team with shooting and defense.
Graham Calton, a 6-4 junior foward, averaged 13 points and six rebounds. He is a big-time talent representing the future of the program.
With all of that and sophomore Daniel Haughton and junior guards Chase Montgomery and Ryan Hirsh sprinkling into the mix, this team is deep, talented and not scared to talk about the expectations they face.
“The goal is to be the top team in the conference, but we have to go out and win games,” Johnson said. “Expectations are high, we know that, but we’re taking this one game at a time. The expectations don’t change anything for us. We still have to go out and take care of business.”
Johnson said the strengths are outside shooting and size with eight players 6-2 or taller although nobody more than 6-5, which could bring rebounding into a premium.
“We really pride ourselves on our chemistry as a team,” Clements said. “We have our seniors that have been together a lot. We have that chemistry, but I feel like we’ve built this Latin program by playing hard, doing what we’re told to do and coming to work every day. If we work hard, we come to practice and work on what we need to, we’re going to be fine. We can play well if we do what we do.”
The Hawks say they’d like to get off to a better start this season, although they will have some big-time tests against non-conference foes including Ardrey Kell, South Meck, Hickory Grove and Metrolina Christian among others.
But the Hawks say they know what they have in their team and can fend off the expectations and challenges to reach their goals.
“We have a lot of talent and a lot of shooting and size,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of guys who can shoot the ball and a lot of 3-and-D guys who know what we need to do.”
Berger has challenged his team this season to make every day better, and it’s a motto the Hawks say they’re living by in the classroom and on the court as they look to build upon their best statistical season since the 2014-15 campaign.
“Our motto is to win the day,” Johnson said. “We’re coming out here every day to practice hard and listen to what we need to. That’s how we win each day, and it’s how we’re approaching each day.”
Even with their catchy sayings and obvious talent, the Hawks aren’t cemented in that top spot just yet.
Country Day has some talent. Cannon has two of the best sophomores in the Southeast if not beyond. Covenant Day should be much improved and Providence Day and Charlotte Christian will always be in the mix of the league’s top teams.
So the Hawks say they will not take anything for granted as they give it one more go together after last season ended with so much promise.
“Every day at practice we have to earn everything, fight for everything and we know nothing will be given to us,” Hull said. “We’re going to fight for what we want.”