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West Brunswick adjusts to conference changes

West Brunswick's OJ Hill drives in for a layup against South Columbus' Mac Chestnutt at West Brunswick High School. (Photo by Jeff Janowski)

Realignment shuttered the Waccamaw Conference, but Eric Davis looks back fondly. The fourth-year coach at West Brunswick hopes memories forged in the competitive 3A/2A conference will help the transition to the 4A/3A Mideastern Conference.

West Brunswick returns four starters off a squad that played for a conference tournament title last winter.

That experience stands out compared to its new competition. None of the other six Mideastern Conference teams brought back more than two starters.

The seasoned Trojans make their conference debut on Tuesday night at Laney, ready to be challenged by the Wilmington public schools.

“They’ve been in these type of games,” Davis said. “We weren’t playing Laney or Hoggard or New Hanover, but that was a strong league we played in. … We were seeing really athletic, well-coached teams pretty much every night.”

West Brunswick (3-1) hopes to continue a climb that began when Davis took over a team that won just one game in the 2009-2010 season.

The Trojans improved their conference record in each of their first three seasons under Davis, and this group is the first he’s had at the Shallotte school that has played exclusively in his system.

The team’s top six players, including leading-scorer Gray Cheers, were with the varsity the past two seasons. All 11 players on the current varsity roster have seen regular minutes in the first four games, and Davis said that depth will allow the team to play the fast-paced style he favors.

“We just all believe in his system,” said Cheers, a junior who averaged 14.5 points per game last season. “We know it works, and if we do it his way, it will work.”

West Brunswick’s 62-49 win over South Columbus last Tuesday illustrated the rising expectations. The Trojans weren’t threatened in the second half, but the talk in the locker room afterward centered on fixing their 34 turnovers.

Two days later, West Brunswick took its first loss at North Brunswick, a reminder of the team’s small margin for error. The Trojans trailed the rival Scorpions by 16 late in the third quarter, and their rally came up short in a 65-64 loss, even after Cheers had 23 points and 11 rebounds in the final quarter alone.

“You better bring it every night or you’re going to be in trouble,” Davis said. “If you dig a hole like that in the conference, you’re probably not going to be able to come back. You have to be ready from tip off until the end.”

The addition of 3A West Brunswick, South Brunswick and Topsail figures to change the dynamics of the Mideastern Conference, but coaches at the 4A Wilmington schools said they expect top-to-bottom competition. All the newcomers have coaches with high-level experience that should help maximize their talent.

Topsail’s Jeff Gainey previously coached at 4A Terry Sanford in Fayetteville, and South Brunswick’s Scott Wainwright was a head coach at Cape Fear Community College and an assistant under his father Jerry, the former UNCW coach.

Then, there’s Davis, who in college passed up the chance to walk on at West Carolina to become an assistant coach at a local middle school. He was named head coach at Hopewell outside Charlotte at 25 years old and spent nine seasons there, guiding the Titans within a victory of the 4A state final in 2009.

Davis said he’d prefer an all-3A conference but would be more concerned about the switch with a less tested team. West Brunswick showed its fortitude last season with a run to the conference final while Cheers was sidelined with mono.

Cheers said the team has made finishing in the top half of the conference a goal. The guard echoes his coach in believing the tough schedule can prepare the Trojans for a run in the 3A playoffs.

“I’m glad we did it,” Cheers said. “The competition’s better. Playing against higher ranked schools will hopefully help West Brunswick get on the map a little bit. Everybody likes a challenge.”

Tuesday's Mideastern Conference schedule

Girls at 6 p.m.; Boys at 7:30 p.m.

Topsail at Hoggard

South Brunswick at Ashley

West Brunswick at Laney

(New Hanover off)