by Chris Hunt
The most successful season in Hopewell girls basketball history ended in Greensboro in the regional semifinals of the Class 4A state tournament on March 1. The Titans’ state title aspirations were squashed in a loss to an extremely athletic Southwest Guilford squad, the No. 1 seed out of the Piedmont-Triad Conference.
After the game, a subdued Hopewell coach Gary Richmond said his team struggled against Southwest Guilford’s talented perimeter players, led by star point guard Zena Lovette, who is averaging 18.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists per contest. Richmond added that the Cowboys’ perimeter pressure frustrated the Titans’ offense, preventing Hopewell from capitalizing on its size advantage along the front line. Hopewell fell behind by 19 points before a 15-0 run cut the deficit to four points midway through the fourth quarter. But the late push wasn’t enough as the Titans fell, 49-43.
“They were just bigger and faster than us at the guard position,” said Richmond. “We didn’t go inside often enough to establish post scoring. I told my girls (after the game), ‘We don’t make excuses, and we had a great season.’ Our seniors helped turn this program around (during their four seasons).”
The Titans left the Greensboro Coliseum in disappointment but can hold their heads high knowing they accomplished more than any Hopewell girls basketball team in the school’s 10-year history. This year marked the first time the Titans advanced to the regional round of the state tournament. Hopewell’s 24 victories broke the school’s single-season record, and its four losses were the lowest total ever. The Titans have come a long way since Richmond took over the program four years ago after a dismal 12-15 campaign.
“I’m very happy for our girls because we set goals when we took over four seasons ago, and we are right on pace,” said Richmond. “We sacrificed a win or two in the first two seasons to teach lessons, and it paid off in the long run. They learned how to practice and how to handle themselves on the road. We won more games each year.”
This season, the Titans cruised to their first sectional title by relying on a stifling defense to defeat their first three playoff opponents by an average of 25 points per contest. Hopewell knocked out Asheville’s A.C. Reynolds High in the first round, 65-38. The Titans added a second-round win over East Gaston, 58-35, and followed it up with a 49-24 victory over Indian Trail Porter Ridge. The Titans were particularly good late, never letting their feet off the accelerator, even with a large lead.
“We just locked down on them defensively, and they couldn’t do what they are used to doing,” Richmond said of the Titants’ first three opponents. “Our defense led to offense. We held Porter Ridge to just two points in the second quarter, and East Gaston didn’t get any points in the fourth (quarter).”
The March 1 loss was the final game for the Titans’ first four-year class under Richmond. The Hopewell coach walked out of the locker room one last time with seniors Hannah Early, Hunter Meakin, Addison Wolfkill and Karoline Summerville.
During her career, Early, who led the Titans against the Cowboys with 14 points, averaged 15.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Many believe Early will win her second consecutive I-MECK 4A conference Player of the Year award. The all-conference awards will be released after the final I-MECK 4A team finishes its season. Conference member Mallard Creek upset nationally ranked Butler, 50-45, on March 1 and will face Southwest Guilford on March 5 for the chance to go to the state championship game.
Early, a 6-foot-1 forward, will play for Davidson College next season. Meakin was the team’s sharpshooter who led the state in 3-point shooting (46 percent) as a junior and connected on 42 percent of her attempts from behind the arc this season. Wolfkill lettered all four of her years on the squad, while Summerville was a two-year starter at point guard who made the varsity team as a sophomore.
“I think this class wound up with the most wins for a class of players in school history,” said Richmond. “They established the fact that we are one of the top-10 girls basketball programs in the state with their consistency, especially playing in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system, which I think is the most competitive in the state.”
This year’s senior class, along with juniors Sharee’ Boyd and T.J. Burks, made up the core of the Titans squad that won at least a share of the last two I-MECK 4A conference regular-season titles. Balanced scoring from the two classes sparked Hopewell’s playoff run – and its 2010-11 season, for that matter. The Titans didn’t have a player who averaged more than 16 points per game, but at least five players scored a minimum of five points a contest. Early, Boyd and Burks averaged at least 10 points apiece in the first three rounds of the playoffs, while Meakin totaled 28 points in three games.
“Our first class came in with skill and transformed us into a winning program,” said Richmond. “The next class brought athleticism the first crew didn’t have. We mixed the two together, and it was a good combination between this year’s junior and senior classes.”
Hopewell lost to just two teams this season – Southwest Guildford once and rival Mallard Creek three times.