RALEIGH, NC (The Charlotte Observer) - The West Charlotte High players often wear maroon T-shirts during their games.
Two words are printed on the back: “Lion Pride.”
And that pride was evident before, during and after what had to be a disappointing 72-46 state championship loss to nationally ranked South Central on Saturday at N.C. State.
It was the biggest loss a 4A team had ever taken in the final round, and West Charlotte rarely looked like the group that had galvanized the city of Charlotte during an improbable run to state championship game.
But what you did see, still, was that pride.
West Charlotte’s fans kept cheering, kept waving pompoms, kept pushing, no matter the score. And on the court, West Charlotte’s players — struggling mightily with their shot, the moment and a 6-foot-10 junior center named Day’ron Sharpe — well, they didn’t quit either.
The Falcons’ Sharpe, who has committed to North Carolina, had 23 points, 13 rebounds and seven dunks playing in front of Tar Heels coach Roy Williams.
“They’re great kids,” West Charlotte coach Jacoby Davis said of his team after the game. “They’re fighters.”
That fight, that want to, is what helped get West Charlotte to this stage. The Lions beat Vance by five points in the first round of the playoffs at home. Then, they won by three at Olympic in the second round.
The NCHSAA made West Charlotte move its third-round game with Ardrey Kell to Vance High, saying the Lions’ gym, which could only seat 450 fans, wasn’t big enough.
Many Lions’ supporters felt that Ardrey Kell fans had pushed for a move, because of size and because those more-affluent families weren’t comfortable coming to the west side of Charlotte.
Then, just before the game, a nasty social media post came to light, where an Ardrey Kell player directed a racist slur at Lions players, as well as a doctored post that claimed a West Charlotte player made a violent threat in response.
It all sparked a citywide discussion of race and class in Charlotte, and it brought literally thousands of West Charlotte graduates out in support of their school.
Panthers owner David Tepper, hearing about the team’s journey, paid for two charter buses for West Charlotte to ride to Raleigh, and he covered the teams’ hotel rooms.
Lion Pride was back.
“We brought the community together,” West Charlotte senior Quinten Thomas said. “Not just as a team, but the whole city of Charlotte was behind us and I appreciate that. They are a big part of the reason we were here.”
Once upon a time, West Charlotte was the flagship school in Charlotte and perhaps all of North Carolina. It had a diverse population, great academics and great sports teams.
In the late ‘90s and into the early 2000s, attendance lines were redrawn and West Charlotte went through a series of principals. Over time, the school slipped academically and athletically. Today, 98 percent of West Charlotte students are on free or reduced-price lunch.
But this group of teenagers, and their journey, brought back fight, spirit and hope to West Charlotte, even if the last game didn’t quite fit the movie script this past month had turned into.
“Honestly,” Davis said, “I thought our boys handled all this well and did a really good job. It could’ve gone left from the beginning, with all the controversy, but our guys showed their Lion pride. I said, ‘Don’t get caught up in this,’ and they didn’t. That was the best thing about it. They kept playing.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to see the good in things when you have just lost the biggest game of your life on the biggest stage of your life, but West Charlotte has had a quite a season.
They won a conference tournament, a sectional tournament and a regional tournament.
More than any of that, they won tons of hearts back home.
And I’ll stop here and let them tell you about it.
Cartier Jernigan: “Of course we wanted to win, but it’s still a milestone for your high school career. The West Charlotte alumni is truly spectacular. I learned that through all of this. The culture of West Charlotte is very special to me.”
Patrick Williams: “I’m not going to forget anything about this run. Just the togetherness with my brothers, the support we got. I will never forget anything, from the bad losses, to the good wins. I’ll never forget this team.”
And Quinten Thomas, again: “I’m still proud. I am going to hold my head up and never doubt myself or anybody on the team. This past month has been great.”