by Staff Writer
by Cliff Mehrtens
North Mecklenburg High coach Duane Lewis has a basketball team that fits his style.
That combination has forged a 13-2 record, and a share of first place in the I-MECK 4A conference.
“I’ve been blessed with a bunch of blue-collar guys, and that’s the way I like it,” Lewis said. “I like blue-collar guys, who might have a little chip on their shoulder because they’ve been under-recruited.”
The Vikings also were under-estimated by predictors who thought rebuilding was in order after seven players graduated from last year’s squad.
Not for Lewis, who has parlayed depth and attitude into making North Mecklenburg a serious contender. The Vikings have accepted their roles, and flourished in them.
“I want guys who want to come in and work, live and bleed and give you everything they’ve got,” Lewis said. “That’s my personality and that’s who I deal with the best. These guys are like that.”
Point guard Shivaughn Wiggins qualifies as the Vikings’ star and averages 24.3 points, 5.1 assists and 2.8 steals. The key, though, is that North Mecklenburg can win if Wiggins scores less than his average.
Center Josh Stepoli, a 6-foot-7-inch transfer from Pennsylvania, is averaging 10.1 points and 6.2 rebounds. Tahjai Watt, a 6-foot-5-inch junior, averages 7.9 points and 6.6 rebounds. Rashaan Brown (10.1 points) and Shakir Arnett (7.5 points) are consistent scorers.
“We like transition, we like running down the court,” Brown said. “We try to use everything we can. We have a real athletic team. All our post players are real athletic. Then we’ve got shooters. And we’ve got people who can dribble the ball. Everyone’s got their little thing they put into it.”
Lewis said he’s able to interchange players “four through 10” on his roster during a game without a drop-off in performance. That allows the Vikings to press more on defense, and keeps players fresh.
“I’m a firm believer that you’re only as good as your bench,” Lewis said. “They do a great job of maintaining, and buying into what we want.”
That starts with getting the ball into the hands of Wiggins, a 5-foot-9-inch senior. He’s been a consistent scoring threat, with a 33-point performance against Lake Norman, 32 against Hough and in a holiday tournament against Glenelg Country School (Md.), and 30 against Garinger.
“Shivaughn is definitely the guy who makes us go, no doubt about it,” Lewis said. “He’s scoring for us because that’s what we need, but he doesn’t mind scoring 12 a game. When your best player doesn’t mind passing the ball, and he understands that, he gets others involved and that allows us to dump it down low to (Josh) Stepoli and Tahjai (Watt) when we need to. We’ve got other guys who can slash (to the basket), so it takes the pressure off Shivaughn.”
That’s fine with Wiggins. He’s happy to share the ball and the limelight. Having options also makes the Vikings tough to defend.
“We get to do a lot of different things,” Wiggins said. “Sometimes on the press, we’ll go man (defense). Or we’ll play zone. We’ve got a lot of weapons. Josh Stepoli. Tahjai. We’ve got Rashaan (Brown). We’ve got people who can score. We’ve been playing hard and playing together.”
North Mecklenburg will face a tough test in a home game against rival Hopewell on Friday. North Mecklenburg and Mallard Creek are tied for the conference lead at 5-1. Mooresville and West Charlotte, the state’s reigning Class 4A champion, are a game behind at 4-2.
Lewis said a key to the remaining conference games will be his team’s self-awareness.
“Mooresville’s talented. West Charlotte’s got all that talent,” he said. “With us, we can’t move from a blue-collar to a white-collar mentality. They’ve got to keep that lunch pail work ethic and remember we’re still the team nobody expected to finish in the top four or five in the conference.”
It’s easy to overlook a team that replaced seven seniors, as North Mecklenburg was doing. But, Wiggins and Brown agreed that they knew the Vikings had the incoming talent to be a good team.
Lewis got a hint, too, when the team went 14-2 in summer tournaments against good competition. That was without Stropoli and a couple other players. Lewis’ philosophy is to make the junior varsity team a building block, rather than a wasteland. That helps prevent extended dips in the win-loss record.
“We feel like we have a program,” Lewis said. “We put a high value on our junior varsity team. Always have, always will. Some people don’t believe in that. We want our j.v. team winning and learning.
“We knew we still had a core group coming back that believed in the North Meck way. We knew we weren’t going to be as bad as people thought we were going to be. Did we think we’d be this good? I don’t know.”
Said Brown: “We’ve been good, people just didn’t know. We humble ourselves, and we’re never out there with (vanity). We always came to practice and worked hard every day.”
The Vikings will likely be locked in a tight conference race that goes down to the final week. That puts a premium on every game, and to sticking to Lewis’ plan.
“We have to keep that warrior, pit bull mentality that we’re going to work every day,” he said. “That’s what we tell the players. No excuses. We want to win every 50-50 ball. We’re diving on the floor. We’re taking charges, and if the ball’s up in the air, we’re going for it.
“We have a very athletic team, and a very hard-working team. They get along with each other. That’s been the great thing about this team – they like each other. The chemistry is there.”