Powering forward

Cuthbertson High School opened its doors in 2009, and with it came a group of inexperienced freshmen basketball players ready to start building the varsity team under coach Mike Helms. They were small and untested, but ready to fight knowing that it would take a few seasons before they would become competitive.

Kirby Crutchfield returns to the court for his senior season after missing last year due to an ACL injury.

Kirby Crutchfield returns to the court for his senior season after missing last year due to an ACL injury.

But two short years later, the Cavaliers found themselves in the Class 2A state championship game.

Emmitt Afam, Isiah Cureton, Cornelius Stradford, Lucius McMillon, Jorden Hardrick-Givens – a dream team of juniors – combined with sophomore superstar point guard Shelton Mitchell to put Cuthbertson basketball on the competitive scene by going undefeated in the conference and finishing the season 31-2 after a three-point loss to Kinston in the state championship game.

That same group led the Cavs to another state championship appearance the following year after a 15-1 conference run, but they weren’t able to clinch the title as they dropped to Kinston in the final, again by three points.

The stacked talent on the Cav squad and two state championship games in only four years of school existence quickly created lofty expectations for the Cuthbertson basketball program. But as the experienced players from the state championship teams graduated last season, and Mitchell, a Wake Forest commit who was averaging 20 points per game, took his talents to Virginia’s renowned Oak Hill Academy, the 2013 Cavalier team is now composed of entirely new faces and a lot of inexperience.

After only three weeks of the season, the Cavs (1-7 overall) have dropped more games than they did the prior two years combined – when they went 60-6 – and sit last in the Southern Carolinas conference standings.

Helms knew going in that this season would be a learning experience for the new team, especially after they returned two of the top 12 players from last year’s team.

“We had a special freshmen class the year we opened,” he said. “I can’t say that at the time we projected what it would turn out to be, but we knew we had a chance to be pretty good. You don’t get groups like that often. This year, we lost 10 out of 12. It’s a starting-over point as far as not having any experience. We have some young kids we like, but it reminds me a lot of that first year we opened in that we don’t have varsity experience.

“There’s a lot of potential here, it’s just that we have to be patient and let them develop and let them grow and get comfortable on the court because playing varsity is different than playing JV. It’s going to take a little bit of time.”

Guard Kirby Crutchfield is one of just two seniors on this year’s team, but missed all of last season due to a torn ACL. Crutchfield, who says his knee is fully healthy, played minutes in the 2011 state title game and witnessed firsthand the success of the two championship teams.

“Those two years were really special because, when I came in, I knew our team was good – but I didn’t realize we were going to be state-championship good,” he said. “We were just out there playing basketball. We weren’t thinking about the state championship game. We were just practicing hard, putting in a lot of time and work and it turned out to be state-championship worthy.”

Helms is counting on Crutchfield to use his seniority, varsity and championship experience to set the pace for an inexperienced Cavalier team.

“We’re asking Kirby to stay positive and continue to push the team,” Helms said. “We’re counting on him to be a leader for these young guys. It’s not all freshmen – in fact, it’s no freshmen – but it’s kids with no varsity experience. It’s just the kind of thing where we’re going to have to be patient.”

Cuthbertson dropped their first five games this season, but earned their first win against Pageland Central, 67-52, on Dec. 6.

Despite their youth, the Cavs are showing bursts of talent in sporadic minutes of their games. Six-four sophomore forward Tyrik Dawson is averaging 10 points per game and put up 15 against Central, shooting 80 percent from the floor. Sophomore guard Ryan Mobley and 6-5 junior center Anthony Pandoli are both averaging nine points per game. Six-two junior Tyler Hardiman averages seven points and a team-high six rebounds, senior guard Matt Allen leads the team with three assists per game and 5.9 points and Crutchfield has chipped in with 4.4 points per game.

Helms said the way the rest of the season unfolds for the Cavs largely depends on the development of the big men inside and guards Mobley and Allen’s ability to dictate the offense.

“A big key for us will be how our guards grow up,” Helms said. “We’re playing a lot of young kids and the question is, how quickly will they develop?

“So far, we’ve had inconsistent performances. We’re on a rollercoaster. We’re up and down and that’s even within the game. We aren’t talking about one practice to the next or one game to the next; we’re talking within a game. We show flashes of something special and then we just make mistakes that we shouldn’t be making at the varsity level. But that will work itself out in more time on the court, the more types of defenses they see, and they get a little more used to seeing it and adjusting to it on the fly.”

Crutchfield hopes to be vocal enough to push the underclassmen toward the success of former years.

“I’ve seen a lot of spark in these guys,” he said. “Honestly, it’s nothing like the team we had before but I think we could be special. We’re basically just rebuilding. We have some big players and we’re probably one of the biggest teams in our league this year and I think that’s definitely going to help us. We’re just young and we have to get in the gym, work on jump shots, and get in a lot of practice. It’s not like we can just get out there and play because a lot of the kids don’t have game experience. We have to get a lot of practice in, game film, everything.”

Though Helms won’t immediately see results like those of prior years, he’s confident this team has the potential to develop into championship contenders.

“Fortunately with the way the league changed, we don’t play any conference games until January,” he said. “That buys us some time. We’re not going to try and quantify a number of wins that we want to shoot for. We’re trying to build toward a conference season right now.

“There are going to be some bumps here and there, but my goal for this team is to find a way to grow and make the playoffs. That’s our goal: let’s make the playoffs regardless of what the seed is, whether it’s a one seed, two seed or three seed. Let’s get into the playoffs and let’s get some playoff experience to build that forward again.”

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