CHARLOTTE – It seems that Independence has reloaded, and the Patriots are primed to make a run at another state championship this winter.
Independence returns three starters and several key reserves from a team that won the Class 4A championship with a 31-1 record last March. Add in three transfers and a 6-foot-6 sophomore that is already receiving interest from Division I programs and it seems that the Patriots have all the ingredients of a state championship team.
“This year’s group is a little bit different,” Independence coach Preston Davis said. “We lost some key players from last year, but I think we might be a little deeper on the bench this year. We have a little more length and athleticism from top to bottom on the roster. We have a lot of interchangeable pieces.
“I think we will be able to do a lot of different things on defense. Last year, we were known for running our 3-2 zone. This year, I think we will be able to mix it up a little bit more and give some teams some different looks. I’m excited.”
But that road to a second championship will not be an easy one. Independence is tackling a difficult non-conference schedule that includes playing in a national tournament, several regionals showcases and the Patriots must survive a conference schedule dotted with quality opponents.
“We are playing a heck of a schedule this year,” Davis said. “It’s going to take a little luck, and it’s definitely going to take a lot of hard work to get back there. This group has to stay focused. Last year is in the past. We have to understand that this is going to be a different journey for this team. We are playing a loaded schedule and we are going to be tested. We may not have the same record we had last year, but it will get us ready for conference play and it will definitely get us ready for the state playoffs.”
Seniors Matthew Smith, Raja Milton and Andra’ McKee return to the starting lineup. Senior Miles Pauldin will join them after contributing key minutes off the bench last season. Tyler Harris, a highly-touted transfer from Northside, rounds out the starting five.
Smith (6-5), who signed with Murray State, averaged 12.3 points and 8.8 rebounds a year ago. McKee (6-2), who signed with Queens University of Charlotte, averaged 14.4 points and 3.4 rebounds a game while Milton averaged 9.7 points and 3.3 rebounds.
“Those three guys have a lot of experience,” Davis said.
McKee said the Patriots have the talent to make it back to the state championship game.
“I have a lot of confidence in my team,” he said. “I think we can have a great season like we did last year. But we have to stay focused and work hard. All five guys have to go out, swing passes and whoever scores, scores. Once we get that bucket, we have to get back on the defensive end.”
Smith said having eight seniors on the roster, including all five projected starters, will be a plus for the Patriots
“We have the experience, and we have the talent” Smith said. “We understand we are the hunted, but we don’t put that pressure on ourselves. We want to show people that last year was not a fluke. We worked hard in the offseason because we know this year will not be easy. We have to be focused every night because we know everybody is going to give us their best shot.”
Harris, who is a 6-6 senior signed with Western Carolina, averaged 6.1 points and 2.1 rebounds at Northside last season.
“Tyler is a kid that can play multiple positions,” Davis said. “The biggest thing that I have been impressed with him is his work ethic. He stays after practice and works on his own. Sometimes he will be early and get a couple of drills in on his own. Obviously, he is a very talented player that brings a lot of energy to the team.”
Pauldin (6-4) averaged three points and three rebounds a game last season and played 10 minutes in the title game last March. Anthony Allen (5-11) was the next man off the bench last season, and the junior averaged 2.9 points and 1.1 rebounds a game.
“Two players that got forgotten are our sixth and seventh man from last season,” Davis said. “We have a lot of different guys that can lead and carry the load and understand what it takes. They can help some of the younger guys. We have some guys that transferred in with experience that will also be very valuable.”
Senior Amonti Burton (6-3) also returns while transfers Jaelyn Lewis (Rocky River) and Nygell Verdier (Charlotte Secondary) also will contribute valuable minutes for the Patriots.
“Jaelyn brings experience because he played at Rocky River last year,” Davis said. “He has experience at the varsity level in our league. Rocky River had a great team last year so he knows what it takes to make deep playoff runs. Nygell, we are excited about him and he is going to be a sleeper for us. The kid can play.”
Davis said that sophomore Omarion Bodrick (6-6) will also play a key role for the Patriots.
“He didn’t play a lot with the varsity, but we knew from what we saw in practice last year that he is going to be a big piece,” Davis said. “He is already getting some Division I looks. We have heard from Wake Forest, Cincinnati, James Madison, Clemson, Oklahoma State and some others. He is a kid that is starting to grab coach’s eyes at the next level. He is only going to get better.”
Balanced scoring was a big key to the Patriot success last season and Davis expects that trend to continue this season.
“We hope that will happen again,” Davis said. “I think it is always better when opposing teams just can’t key in on one player. We have been preaching being unselfish and moving the ball around. Whoever the guy is that night, we try to make that a foundation of our program. It has been working so far and we have seen some success from the summer and the team camps we went to. We are expecting the same mentality and very unselfish type of play.”
Davis said there will be no easy nights in conference with Butler and Myers Park two teams with enough talent to make a run at a conference crown.
“Everybody is gunning for us,” Davis said. “But this is what we want. We want to be considered one of the elite programs, a program that people want to be like and a program that people want to knock off. It’s an exciting time.”