Young Chargers hope to shake off 2020 state title loss using size, defense as catalysts

BY VICTOR HENSLEY, News + Record Staff
Posted 11/23/21

Last March, Northwood turned heads as its men’s basketball team, led by three freshmen and a capable group of seniors, won four straight …

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Young Chargers hope to shake off 2020 state title loss using size, defense as catalysts

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Last March, Northwood turned heads as its men’s basketball team, led by three freshmen and a capable group of seniors, won four straight road playoff games en route to an appearance in the NCHSAA 3A state title game, where the Chargers fell short of the championship trophy in a close loss to Weddington.

This season — despite the losses of four senior leaders and sophomore star Jarin Stevenson (now at Seaforth) — Northwood is said to be “really, really hungry” as it strives to fight its way back to the title game with a full slate of games standing in its way.

This week, the News + Record spoke with Matt Brown, Northwood’s fifth-year coach, to discuss his team’s resilience, potential breakout performers and rigorous offseason training. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Your team was one game away from winning a state title last season, but came up just short. After that game, were the players down on themselves or were they motivated to come back, do it again and try to finish the job?

The seniors were down because that was their last shot, but the other guys who were returning were fully motivated and really, really hungry, wanting to do it again. It’s so hard to get that far, but they have wanted to do everything that they can to put themselves in that position again. Morale has always been great, even after the loss. A couple days after the loss, guys were texting me asking, “When can we get back in the gym? When can we get back to the gym?” so it’s never been, “Man, we blew it,” it’s always been, “I want to finish this.” We’ve talked about the loss briefly, but we don’t talk about it a lot. Now we’re always talking about the process, getting better every day.

You’ve seemed to take steps to get your players ready for this season, including playing in some major tournaments against big-named teams from both North and South Carolina. What has this offseason meant for you and how has your team been striving to get better?

We played the best of the best. In South Carolina, we played W.J. Keenan High School. They had a kid there, Jazian Gortman, who’s now playing with Overtime Elite at the professional level. And we played Dutch Fork High School, which has made the state championship and been the state runner-up and made the Final Four the last couple of years, this year probably making it as far. Then we played the state champion of the 5A class in South Carolina, so I did it on purpose to make sure these guys understand that this is how good we need to be.

The biggest thing that we took away from it was the weight room. We weren’t strong. We weren’t strong mentally or physically, so this offseason, we spent a lot of time in that weight room and it’s been pretty cool to see those guys evolve in the weight room and see just how competitive they have been with each other in the weight room. If one guy’s lifting a certain weight, another guy wants to outdo him. Or if a guy’s maxing out, everybody was around that guy clapping, hooting, hollering and cheering them on. I’ve never been a part of a group like this before. It’s a really fun group. And they’re so young. I’ve got one senior this year, the rest are sophomores and juniors. And I have one freshman.

You lost four strong seniors over the offseason, all of which provided a ton of leadership on your state championship run last season. Who do you see coming in and filling those roles this year?

Our one senior, Seth Lewis, he has stepped up big time, both in the weight room and on the court. He’s not a vocal guy, but I’ve challenged him to become more vocal and he has accepted that challenge. And then my point guard, Fred Whittaker, he’s really stepped into that role of, “I’m the quarterback of this team and this is how it’s supposed to go.” And then, I’m constantly trying to get Drake Powell to talk more and he has finally come around to actually understanding what it means to be a leader and to talk. And it’s not just talking, it’s kind of being an example and just showing what’s right. Drake is more like a lead-by-example guy.

Who do you see as some of the top returners and top newcomers that will make the largest impact for your team this season?

Obviously Drake and Fred, those two guys led us last year on our run, and then Jake Leighton, he’s a newcomer, he’s a J.V. guy, but I mean, Fred and Drake are pretty much our only two guys who actually got a lot of minutes last season. Kenan Parrish played some here and there and so did Griffin Hobbs, but Drake and Fred are the two guys who are returning that we’re going to rely heavily on. But it’s not going to be like, if they’re off, then we’re done. We’ve got a lot of other pieces surrounding them that are going to be very helpful.

Max Frazier came from Woods Charter. He’s 6-foot-8, he’s a junior, he’s long, very athletic, great passer, great defender, an incredible shot-blocker. He’s a difference maker. And Griffin played on the varsity last year, got some minutes and has really improved his game. Jake was our leading scorer on the J.V. and he’s about three inches taller, more athletic, long and he can do it all. Also Koda Lewis, he was on the varsity last year, didn’t get a lot of minutes, but he stepped into his role and he hit the open jumper and was great defensively, so those guys. And then obviously Kenan, who’s probably our most improved player that I’ve ever seen. When we first got him as a freshman, he had never played basketball, really, and in just three years, he has blossomed into a really good basketball player. We do miles for conditioning. His first mile, three years ago, I think was 17 minutes, 54 seconds. This year, his fastest mile was at 7:01. That kind of improvement is just unreal for anybody, but for his size at 6-foot-11 and he wears size 20 shoes. With his size, running that fast, it’s pretty incredible to see.

Northwood opens the season against new in-county rival Seaforth on Tuesday. What is that on-court rivalry going to be like between those two schools?

I think it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be like back in the day, I guess, J-M and Northwood was a big rivalry. Really good basketball, a bunch of fans. So I feel like Seaforth’s going to be kind of like another J-M, so we’re going to have basically four rivalry games in a year, which is going to be a lot of fun. It gets the community together, allows us to get competitive against each other, so I’m looking forward to it. We take each game like it’s just another game, so we don’t hype up any other game, whether its a rival, if it’s Seaforth or Millbrook, whoever we play. It’s just another game to for us to get better. That’s our main focus. It’s not who we’re playing, it’s us. And that’s why I try to remind our guys that it’s all about us, it’s not about the other team. We kind of take that take that route to to every game.


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