The Target’s on the Titans

Hopewell looks to take oft-discussed potential to the top this season

by Chris Hunt

The Titans (from left) Hannah Early, Addison Wolfkill, Hunter Meakin, Karoline Summerville and Sharee’ Boyd return for another season of varsity basketball.

Just 10 days before the 2010-11 high school girls basketball season was set to begin, Hopewell junior Shareé Boyd tried on her new uniform for the first time. It didn’t take long for the verdict to come in.

As Boyd walked the hallway outside her locker room, she made a face as if she’d tasted sour milk. Turns out, Boyd didn’t like the way the new uniform felt. The new Dri-FIT model had a different texture than last season’s jersey, which was uncomfortable to the Titans’ starting forward.

Boyd, however, will have to get used to the new uniforms because Hopewell coach Gary Richmond isn’t going to send them back. This preseason, the feel of a new uniform is the least of Richmond’s concerns. He’s more interested in how his team is going to handle increased expectations for the 2010-11 campaign.

For three seasons now, Hopewell has been considered an up-and-coming squad in the I-MECK 4A conference. As a freshman in 2007, guards Hunter Meakin and Addison Wolfkill, and forward Hannah Early earned plenty of varsity minutes. Boyd, along with centers Tiera Burks and Victoria Spaulding, were part of the Titans’ heralded “Fab Five” freshman class in 2008 that has since dwindled over the years to three players.

But last season was Hopewell’s coming-out party. The Titans came of age by winning the I-MECK 4A tournament and taking the No. 1 seed into the Class 4A state tournament. They are no longer the underdogs. This season, it’s safe to say that I-MECK 4A adversaries have their sights set on knocking the Titans off their pedestal.

“Oh, yeah, there’s a target on our back,” said Meakin. “We went to the sectional finals last year and won conference. Everyone is asking me if we’ll be good, but I’m just trying to downplay it.”

Meakin’s modesty appears to follow the Titan’s company line.

Some basketball programs prefer to be The Hunted. It’s a reputation built through accomplishments on the hardwood. But Richmond isn’t one of those coaches. It’s not that he can’t let go of the underdog role – a card he certainly can’t play this season. Richmond, it seems, prefers to motivate his troops by looking forward instead of building off the past. From his perspective, his team’s 2009-10 accomplishments are already long gone in the rearview mirror.

“I don’t believe in defending last year’s trophy,” said Richmond. “They’re not giving out the 2010 trophy this year. That trophy has already been given out and put away. We want the 2011 trophy they’re giving out.”

To make his point clear, Richmond squashed all talk about Chapel Hill, site of the 2010-11 state basketball championship. In his first meeting with his players, Richmond told them not to mention Chapel Hill unless it’s to discuss his beloved men’s basketball team, the Tar Heels, dismantling their archrival, the Duke Blue Devils. Jokes aside, Richmond’s message was simple: Win the conference first and then worry about the next game – not the state finals. He doesn’t want his players to get ahead of the task at hand.

“Coach told us that our goals this season were to go for a conference championship, then the tournament championship, then sectionals, then regionals and finally Chapel Hill,” said Early, who was the  I-MECK 4A Player of the Year last season. “Then coach said, ‘This is the last time I want to hear about Chapel Hill.’”

The simple fact that Richmond is trying to avoid conversations about Chapel Hill is proof of his team’s skyscraping potential. The Titans return all but two seniors from last year’s squad that finished 23-5 overall and 10-2 in the I-MECK 4A. Only an overtime loss to Marion’s McDowell High in the sectional finals kept Hopewell’s young squad from playing in the regional tournament.

And yet, Richmond insists on telling his players to ignore the hype. He settled on this head-in-the-sand approach after watching Hopewell’s heralded 2009-10 boys basketball and 2010 volleyball teams struggle under the weight of high expectations. Both squads were knocked out early in the second round of the state playoffs.

The volleyball loss hit especially close to the girls basketball locker room, and not only because it happened just a few weeks ago. Early and guard Hunter Meakin were starters on the volleyball squad, and both agreed the playoff loss was still fresh on their minds. Richmond’s strategy might have also been molded by insight from his  assistant coach, Rhonda Auman, the volleyball team’s head coach.

“What made me think of (banning talk of Chapel Hill) was that boys basketball was expected to get there, and there was talk about the volleyball team also,” said Richmond. “It only takes one game in the playoffs for a team to get beat, and you can’t jump from A-B-C straight to Z. We don’t need to talk about Chapel Hill when we didn’t even make it to regionals last year.”

Richmond might not have felt the need to deflect championship questions if he didn’t have plenty of talent, which usually is a coach’s favorite problem to have. Hopewell returns the most experience of the seven I-MECK teams and is assumed to be the league favorite. Mallard Creek and North Meck offer athletic rosters that will be strong suitors for the conference title. Lake Norman High will challenge, too, if it can rebound from losing coach Dave Walla, six seniors and rising sophomore standout Kaitlin Walla.

Neither team, however, can match the Titans’ preseason potential.

Hopewell’s all-conference post player Margaret Spaulding graduated, but four starters return, including Early, who led the team in scoring (13.7 points per game) and rebounds (6.3). At 6-foot-1 with small forward skills, Early has signed with Davidson College.

Early’s combination of size and skill are tough to match in the I-MECK 4A, but to hint that the Titans are a one-player show would be incorrect. Meakin, Hopewell’s sharp shooter, connected on 43 percent of her 3-point shots during the 2009-10 season. Boyd is an athletic 5-foot-11 forward who Richmond said has earned recruiting attention from Big East and Southeastern conference programs. Wolfkill, senior point guard Karoline Summerville and Burks also return with at least two seasons of varsity experience.

The Titans’ lineup is bolstered by youth with a family tradition of success on the hardwood. Freshman guard/forward Brianna Curry is the sister of Brandyn Curry, a  former Hopewell boys basketball star who is a sophomore on the Harvard University men’s team. Brianna Curry was a top scorer at the middle-school level who must adjust to the speed of varsity play.

Junior Victoria Spaulding, who’s Margaret sister, did not attend Hopewell last season. But as a freshman, she was a standout defender under the basket. She’s a taller, shot-blocking version of her hustling older sister, a captain last season. Richmond hopes the younger Spaulding can bring the same sort of energy off the bench this season.

So does Early.

“We have every aspect on the court covered by at least one player,” said Early. “Everyone has a role and is satisfied with it. If we stick to that, we’ll be successful.”

Of course, Early’s prediction for success also assumes the Titans will refrain from mentioning Chapel Hill this ­season.

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