Like many coaches, West Forsyth girls basketball head coach David May doesn't look at wins as the main indicator of a given season's success. He knows it's typical coach-speak, but it's the truth.
"We really do look at it like, are we getting better?" May said. "And what do we need to do to get better? Sometimes that may mean at the beginning of the season you're losing games by 30 and at the end of the season you're losing them by 15."
May and his staff had to look there during the Wolverines' last season, when West went 5-24 and 2-9 in region play, a season after winning 15 games and two seasons after winning 25 and advancing to the state semifinals. The previous year's squad was overwhelmingly young and inexperienced, coming off two straight losses of significantly-sized senior classes, and this season's team was going to be even more so. In fact, before Katie Jordan decided to return after a year off, the Wolverines anticipated not having any seniors at all.
“In a public high school, it just kind of goes in waves like that,” May said.
But the program's trajectory has flipped nonetheless. The Wolverines' success is indeed reflected in wins, as they're currently 14-10 overall and 6-3 in Region 5-7A, with a chance to clinch the No. 2 tournament seed outright with a win on Friday over South Forsyth, whom West has already beaten 51-33. And as West has come the closest of any region opponent to toppling otherwise unassailable North Forsyth, the Wolverines will enter the region tournament with genuine hopes of winning the title.
May is cagey as to how much of this success is a surprise. He will say that the Wolverines have adapted and made more progress on defense than he expected. There was a reason for his tempered expectations, as West's core rotation features three freshmen: guards Cayla Cowart and twins Calie and Kalie Thrower.
The trio played in West's feeder program, but then went to King's Ridge Christian together through middle school, where the team they played on there went undefeated for two years, with hardly any close games. That made May optimistic of his potential, but also wary of what that success may have caused.
"They're used to just kind of going out and physically being better than the other team," May said. "So when you have that, there are a lot of bad habits that go along with that, and you get away with bad habits that weren't exposed against teams that aren't as good."
If the West freshmen's youth is apparent in games, it's often overshadowed by talent. The Throwers and Cowart are often the among the quickest players on the floor, with diverse offensive games that let contribute inside and outside the arc. Their offensive skills have let junior Maggie Quincy, one of the Wolverines' few returners, shift to a more defensively-focused role, and the Wolverines are an aggressive team on defense, quick to pressure ball handlers and go to the press.
In fact, those tendencies and their general lack of a traditional post presence make the Wolverines look a whole lot like North.
"Once we kind of got to know who we were as a team and what we had as players, we knew that was the style we were going to have to play," May said. "And I think just our personnel and their personnel kind of lent itself to that style."
The Raiders are better than West right now, as May will readily admit, with more depth, more discipline, and slightly more experience, despite having the same amount of seniors. And while their the Wolverines' two losses could technically be considered blowouts, a more detailed inspection is kinder. They were on the other end of the Raiders' tightest win over a a region opponent this year, a 46-30 result on Dec. 11, and despite falling 49-27 in the teams' matchup on Jan. 18, West trailed just 17-16 at halftime and 29-21 after the third quarter.
They're close. And given where the team was at the start of the season, surprisingly so.
"Honestly, at first, I really didn't think we had a shot," Quincy said. "But throughout the year, I was like, 'Wow, we're actually getting better.' ... The second time, we were down by one at half, and going into that game, I was like, 'I want to win this.'"