Preview: Which Chatham-area teams have a shot at a 2021-22 state basketball title?

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You can’t spell “NCHSAA basketball” without C-H-A-T-H-A-M.

Actually, you can, but you surely can’t tell the story of this year’s state basketball playoffs without mentioning one of North Carolina’s most well-represented counties.

With nine representatives from Bear Creek, Chapel Hill, Pittsboro and Siler City preparing to take the floor in both the men’s and women’s tournaments, Chatham has a real shot to make some noise once the playoffs get underway this week.

From one-loss powerhouses like the Chatham Charter men (28-1) and Northwood women (24-1) to the feisty underdogs like the Chatham Central women (12-12) and Seaforth men (12-9), the county’s basketball landscape has almost never been so intriguing.

Here, the News + Record breaks down all nine teams and takes a look at key players and major storylines heading into the 2021-22 NCHSAA playoffs, sorted by classification.

Men’s 1A

Chatham Charter Knights

Record: 28-1 (10-0 in Central Tar Heel)

Conference: Central Tar Heel 1A (champion)

Seed: No. 1, 1A East

First Round Opponent: vs. No. 32 Gates County, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

Potential Second Round Matchup: vs. No. 16 Jones Senior OR vs. No. 17 Northwest Halifax, Thursday

The Chatham Charter Knights have beaten every single team they’ve faced this season.

Seriously.

Their only loss came on Dec. 3 against Uwharrie Charter — a 57-56 loss in overtime — whom they’d beaten a couple of weeks earlier, on Nov. 19, by a 50-46 score.

Aside from that incredibly small blemish, the Knights have been nearly perfect this year, racking up a 28-1 record as they secured their third straight season with just one regular-season loss.

The last time they had 28-plus wins with only one loss, they made it all the way to the state semifinals (in 2020, where they lost to Winston-Salem Prep by 5 points).

After a surprising first-round “upset” in last year’s tournament — the No. 7 Knights were trounced by No. 10 Mountain Island Charter, 72-46 — Chatham Charter’s back with a vengeance.

The Knights are led by established juniors Adam Harvey (15.2 points-per-game and 6.9 rebounds-per-game, leads team) and Aamir Mapp (11.6 PPG), both of whom have versatile skill sets that have only gotten stronger after last year’s COVID-shortened season.

But the terrifying part about playing the Knights: you never know who’s coming to play.

They may beat you with Harvey or Mapp, but they also could gash you with one of their talented freshmen: guard Beau Harvey, one of the team’s floor generals, and Brennen Oldham, an athletic 6-foot-6 center who can just about do it all.

Their versatility and depth is what makes them so frightening and undoubtedly deserving of the 1A East’s top seed, the only Chatham team to earn their region’s No. 1 spot.

Chatham Central Bears

Record: 9-11 (6-5 in Mid-Carolina)

Conference: Mid-Carolina 1A/2A (runner-up)

Seed: No. 10, 1A East

First Round Opponent: vs. No. 23 Bertie, Tuesday, 6 p.m.

Potential Second Round Matchup: at No. 7 Pender OR vs. No. 26 Rosewood, Thursday

The Chatham Central men are an interesting case.

After ending the season with a losing overall record (9-10), they became the highest seed in the 1A East with a sub-.500 record after securing the No. 10 spot, which also makes them the only team in their region to host a playoff game with a losing record.

Despite the team’s overall record, however, the Bears are more than qualified to be here.

They started the season 3-9 with defeats to the likes of Chatham Charter (two losses, No. 1 seed in 1A East) and Cummings (two losses, No. 3 seed in 2A East), before winning six of their final eight games (including another loss to Cummings) to finish third in the Mid-Carolina 1A/2A conference, including first place in the 1A portion of their conference and a trip to the conference title game.

The Bears are centered around a physical nature, a tough defense and a mixture of veteran leaders — namely the trio of seniors Nick Jourdan, Collin Lagenor and Colby Williamson — and impressive newcomers — like freshman Reid Albright and senior Malachi Moore, who is playing organized basketball for the first time in years.

The Bears may have a tough road ahead to prove they can consistently win outside of their conference, but if they can continue the trajectory they’ve been on with recent electric shooting performances, they’ve got a chance to make it further than last season (past the second round).

Men’s 2A

Seaforth Hawks

Record: 12-9 (9-3 in Mid-Carolina)

Conference: Mid-Carolina 1A/2A (lost in 1st round)

Seed: No. 27, 2A East

First Round Opponent: at No. 6 Goldsboro, Tuesday, 7 p.m.

Potential Second Round Matchup: at No. 11 Louisburg OR at No. 22 Princeton, Thursday

The Seaforth Hawks are making their first playoff appearance in school history.

And they’ll surely have their hands full with a Goldsboro (18-4) team that hasn’t lost a game since Dec. 30.

But as a team with strictly freshmen and sophomores, Seaforth has overachieved after a rocky 1-5 start that saw them lose a couple of games by more than 30 points as their season looked to be spiraling.

Since then, however, the Hawks have found their stride, winning 11 of the next 13 to propel themselves to the top of the Mid-Carolina 1A/2A conference.

Their conference season ended abruptly after an upset loss to North Moore in the first round of the conference tournament, 42-40, last week, but if any team can bounce back from a bad loss or two, it’s Seaforth.

The Hawks are led by star sophomore Jarin Stevenson, who leads the team in three of the five major per-game categories: points (20.6), rebounds (11.3) and blocks (3.5).

He’s a 6-foot-8 forward with the skill set of a guard who can hit a much-needed clutch 3-pointer or slam home a soul-crushing dunk — he’s versatile in that way.

With Stevenson, who’s already received college offers from UNC, N.C. State and Virginia, anything is possible.

And it’s especially possible with a supporting cast like freshman Noah Lewis (3.4 assists-per-game, 2.2 steals per game), sophomore Chris Walker (7.9 PPG) and sophomore Lochlan Haddix (4.8 PPG), each bringing their own unique abilities to the table.

If the Hawks can cut down on turnovers — they average 16.2 per game — and muster some offense outside of Stevenson, they’ll have a shot of not only upsetting Goldsboro, but putting future opponents on upset alert, too.

Men’s 3A

Northwood Chargers

Record: 21-3 (12-0 in Central)

Conference: Central 3A (champion)

Seed: No. 6, 3A East

First Round Opponent: vs. No. 27 Havelock, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

Potential Second Round Matchup: vs. No. 11 West Brunswick OR vs. No. 22 Westover, Thursday

It’s been said all season long: Northwood smells blood in the water.

This time last year, the Chargers and their trio of unbelievable freshmen — guard Drake Powell, guard Fred Whitaker Jr. and forward Jarin Stevenson — were making an even more jaw-dropping run to the NCHSAA 3A state title game, where they fell just short to the Weddington Warriors, 57-46.

And they’re bound to be tired of hearing about it.

Now, despite losing Stevenson to Seaforth, Northwood may be even more well-equipped to sustain a title run this year with height being their biggest weapon.

Of the Chargers’ five leading scorers this season, only one of them is shorter than 6-foot-4: Whitaker (5-foot-9; 13.4 PPG).

The others — Powell (6-foot-6; 15.6 PPG), junior Max Frazier (6-foot-8; 7.9 PPG), junior Kenan Parrish (6-foot-11; 7.8 PPG) and sophomore Griffin Hobbs (6-foot-4; 6.3 PPG) — pose a major challenge for teams which may only have one or two big guys to throw on the floor.

Two of the Chargers’ most important building blocks, Powell and Whitaker, have only improved since last season’s championship run, leading the team to a three-loss regular season and runaway conference title.

In the last two seasons, Matt Brown, the Chargers’ fifth-year head coach, has had losses in the Final Four and the state title game, respectively.

Will this finally be the year his team gets over the hump and earns its first championship ring?

Women’s 1A

Chatham Central Bears

Record: 12-12 (9-2 in Mid-Carolina)

Conference: Mid-Carolina 1A/2A (runner-up)

Seed: No. 9, 1A East

First Round Opponent: vs. No. 24 Voyager Academy, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

Potential Second Round Matchup: at No. 8 Ocracoke OR vs. No. 25 Triangle Math & Science, Thursday

Chatham Central women’s basketball is another example of a team overcoming a slow start to not only make the playoffs, but claim one of the state’s top seeds.

On Dec. 30, the Bears were stuck with a 2-9 record after a brutal non-conference schedule, but then, a switch flipped.

The Bears began wrecking teams with their lock-down defense, going through the Mid-Carolina 1A/2A conference season allowing just 31 points per game (26 PPG to teams not named Seaforth).

They’re led by a strong group of six seniors, including Ivey Tillman and Lindsey Johnson, both of which seem to specialize in hitting important, momentum-swinging shots, while freshman Karaleigh Dodson controls the paint, swarms the ball and has mastered the art of putbacks, even at such a young age.

Their defense, however, is much like their offense: a team effort.

Whether it’s hard-to-track firecrackers like junior Jaylee Williams, smart playmakers like senior Sadie Gaines or swifty pickpocketers like Kailey Green, the Bears have no shortage of defensive specialists.

And that’s just the way Head Coach Lynda Burke likes it.

 

Chatham Charter Knights

Record: 18-8 (7-1 in Central Tar Heel)

Conference: Central Tar Heel 1A (champion)

Seed: No. 5, 1A East

First Round Opponent: vs. No. 28 Warren County, Tuesday, 6 p.m.

Potential Second Round Matchup: vs. No. 12 Clover Garden OR vs. No. 21 Weldon, Thursday

The Chatham Charter Knights ripped and tore their way through the Central Tar Heel 1A conference, dominating the third-place Woods Charter Wolves by a combined 85 points in three games and taking two out of three contests from the regular-season champion Clover Garden Grizzlies.

They did so on the back of junior guard Tamaya Walden (21.8 PPG), who scored her 1,000th career point just a couple of weeks ago in a season that’s seen her become a breakout star in Siler City.

She’s been described as both the team’s glue and its engine by Head Coach Jeff Patterson, who has talked extensively about what Walden brings to the table: a positive attitude, all sorts of leadership qualities and a desire to not only score the ball, but put her teammates in position to do the same.

But outside of Walden, the Knights have double-double machine Alexis Baldwin, who averages 11.5 PPG and 10.5 RPG and has racked up 14 games with a double-double, including performances with 17 and 18 rebounds in her last two games, respectively.

She’s always been able to nab boards, but Patterson has praised her for finally improving upon her putback skills, solidifying her force-to-be-reckoned-with status.

They’ve also gotten a lot from the selfless play of sophomore Delana Loflin, who not only leads the team in assists-per-game with 3.3, but also has become a much-improved scorer (8.9 PPG) and one of the Knights’ most crucial turnover creators.

Just like their male counterparts, the Knights are aiming to bounce back from a rough first-round playoff game last season — a 78-43 loss to Robbinsville — and with the weapons they have, don’t be surprised if it happens.

Woods Charter Wolves

Record: 11-6 (4-4 in Central Tar Heel)

Conference: Central Tar Heel 1A (lost in 2nd round)

Seed: No. 17, 1A East

First Round Opponent: at No. 16 Southside, Tuesday, 5:30 p.m.

Potential Second Round Matchup: at No. 1 Bertie OR vs. No. 32 Cape Hatteras, Thursday

The Woods Charter Wolves have had a rough go of it lately.

After jumping out to a scalding-hot unbeaten start at 6-0, the Wolves have since lost six of the last 11, with five of those losses coming from the top teams in the Central Tar Heel 1A conference, Chatham Charter (18-8) and Clover Garden (23-5), with the other coming at the hands of the sub-.500 Eno River Bobcats (10-13).

The Wolves have dealt with some depth issues this season — most notably during their conference-opener on Jan. 14, where they defeated the Triangle Math & Science Tigers, 55-41, with just five active players — but have managed to have successful year under Head Coach Princess Alston, despite being the lone Chatham team that opted not to play during the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season.

Much of the Wolves’ success stems from the play of senior guard Emi Hutter-Demarco, who is easily the most experienced player of the bunch after deciding to play with the men’s team last season, and sophomore Lexi Smollen, who is the team’s leading scorer (18.6 PPG) in just her first season playing high school basketball.

But there’s also sophomore guard Chloe Mitchell (10.6 PPG), who is helping to lead a sophomore class alongside Smollen that Alston gushed about before the start of the season.

If the Wolves are able to upset No. 16 Southside (13-7) in the opening round, they may have a major test against No. 1 Bertie (16-4), which will give them a shot to reclaim their early-season magic and prove that their recent slide has been nothing but a fluke.

Women’s 2A

 

Seaforth Hawks

Record: 18-7 (12-0 in Mid-Carolina)

Conference: Mid-Carolina 1A/2A (champions)

Seed: No. 9, 2A East

First Round Opponent: vs. No. 24 Kinston, Tuesday, 6 p.m.

Potential Second Round Matchup: at No. 8 Whiteville OR vs. No. 25 Red Springs, Thursday

The Seaforth Hawks have not only shined in their first season as a program.

They’ve looked brilliant.

When the smoke cleared at the end of the regular season, the Hawks had won the Mid-Carolina 1A/2A regular-season conference title, the conference tournament title and finished the conference season with a perfect 12-0 record (14-0 if you count the tournament), a feat unheard of for a team consisting of 14-16-year-olds.

Together, the Hawks make up a squad that’s found its rhythm at the perfect time, led by Swiss Army knife Gabby White, a fast-paced freshman guard that can quite literally do it all — score the ball with finesse, grab rebounds regardless of the size crowding around her and intercept passes on the level of some of football’s savviest cornerbacks.

But she’s not their only weapon.

They’ve also got Peyton Collins, a 5-foot-7 freshman guard who’s slowly coming along as one of the Hawks’ top scoring options, as illustrated by her 26-point performance in the conference title game against Chatham Central last Friday.

Then, there’s Hannah Ajayi — described by her coach, Charles Byrd, as the team’s “heartbeat” and default leader by being the team’s lone sophomore — and Sydney Ballard, a 6-foot-2 freshman forward who seems to improve her post skills weekly as she navigates through her first season of high school basketball.

When you put all of these pieces together, you’ve got a team full of freshmen (and one sophomore) that’s chomping at the bit to make their program’s first season a memorable one.

Typically, a brand new team with little experience would rarely have a shot at a deep playoff run, much less a state title.

Lucky for them, however, they’re about as atypical as they come.

Women’s 3A

Northwood Chargers

Record: 24-1 (12-0 in Central)

Conference: Central 3A (champions)

Seed: No. 2, 3A East

First Round Opponent: vs. No. 31 Swansboro, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

Potential Second Round Matchup: vs. No. 15 Fike OR vs. No. 18 Triton, Thursday

There aren’t many teams that have had more dominant seasons than the Northwood Chargers.

In fact, most of their games haven’t even been competitive.

The Chargers’ 24 wins have come by an average margin of victory of 33 points, having racked up a staggering 23 wins by double-digits, including 20 wins by 20-plus points, 14 wins by 30-plus points and nine wins by 40-plus points.

They’ve crushed smaller schools, shockingly embarrassed larger ones — they’re 5-1 against 4A teams — and haven’t discriminated in the butt-whooping department: they’ll give one to just about anybody.

And as impressive as their season’s been, it’s also a little surprising, given they lost some talent due to graduation and transfers last summer after their Final Four run last year.

But the players from last year’s team that didn’t get quite as much shine, like senior guards Natalie Bell and Myla Marve, have excelled this season under first-year head coach Kerri Snipes.

In fact, the Chargers’ abundance of talented guards is borderline unfair.

Whether it’s Bell, Marve, sophomore Skylar Adams or junior Giannia McManaman, Northwood’s stacked with a backcourt that can score when needed, dish out assists to open shooters and play defense with the best of ‘em.

But there isn’t a guard — or player — that means more to the Chargers’ entire operation than senior Olivia Porter, who transferred to Northwood last summer from Auburn High School in Alabama.

Porter leads the Chargers in all major per-game statistical categories besides blocks — points (18.1), rebounds (6.4), assists (3.7) and steals (4.1) — and has provided the energy, scoring and defensive prowess needed to keep Northwood alive as one of the top teams in the 3A classification.

Pair Porter with junior forward Te’Keyah Bland — a game-wrecker in the paint that’s starting to find her groove after missing a good chunk of the season with a leg injury — and you’ve got a recipe for a deep playoff run and a chance at avenging last season’s Final Four defeat.

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.

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