Let's play three guesses.
In which of the big three prep sports - football, basketball or baseball - will Harlem High School have the most success during the 2001-02 school year?
Conventional wisdom says the correct answer is baseball.
Harlem is best known for its prowess on the diamond. The Bulldogs have pitched, fielded and hit their way to 12 region titles and seven state titles, including five Class AA championships under head coach Jimmie Lewis.
But the mighty Caseys who picked the national pastime might have struck out for 2002.
This spring, the Harlem baseball team must replace nine seniors lost to graduation. While the wily Lewis likely will get the most out of his players, it might not be enough to top the heroics of Harlem's football team.
Lewis coached the Bulldogs to a 6-4-1 record on the gridiron last fall, which was the school's first winning football season since 1981.
So, is pigskin the proper choice?
Nope - that's a fumble.
Surprise! The right answer can be found inside the Harlem gymnasium.
The Bulldogs basketball team is having its best run in 30 years - the surging squad beat Westside High School 66-65 in overtime on Jan. 18 and followed with a 75-64 victory over Academy of Richmond Academy. That win Tuesday night in Harlem kept the Bulldogs unbeaten in Region 3-AAA.
Harlem's 7-0 region record was good for a three-game lead in Region 3-AAA with only five region games left in the regular season. Barring a massive collapse, the Bulldogs are state-playoff bound, and with strong play in the region tournament, they would become the top dogs at Harlem High School.
While the Harlem football team has been the feel-good story in Columbia County for the past two years, the Bulldogs basketball team is engineering an even more rapid rise from rags to riches.
The last time Harlem won a region crown on the court was 1969, and the Bulldogs have not advanced to the state playoffs in hoops since the early 1970s.
What's more, Harlem had won only six games in the three seasons before the 2001-02 campaign. With the victory last week over ARC, the team improved to 10-5 under second-year coach Kim Chambers.
Chambers had said he hoped to win 10 games this season; with that mission accomplished, he'll gladly raise the bar.
"We've reached our goal, so now we'll set our goal higher," he said. "We'll try to get it up to 15 wins, because I think this team is capable. We're very confident in what we're doing."
Capable and confident is a winning combination.
"I knew there was going to be a big turnaround just as soon as the season started. I've been playing with these fellas a long time. We just connect," said senior Chris Williams, who scored 24 points to lead Harlem past Westside.
When Williams began playing as a sophomore, Harlem on the hardwood was a fish out of water. Now, the player called "Worm" is taking the bait.
"Everybody is saying we're good, and that we're going to go all the way," he said.
The bleachers were brimming with believers at the Harlem-Westside battle.
"The fan turnouts have been getting bigger and bigger every game," Harlem senior Domonique Brown said. "People in school are talking about basketball more now than they ever have."
Among the topics of discussion is the championship banner earned by the 1969 basketball team. It hangs in the far corner of the Harlem gym and began gathering dust years before the current team members were born.
"We talked to the kids about that banner and the opportunity they have," Chambers said. "At the beginning of the season, winning a region championship was not something we mentioned. The players are the ones that have come through. I coach them and we work on different things at practice, but I'm not going to lie - they're the ones out there making the plays."
Bulldog obedience school
When Chambers left his coaching job at Augusta Preparatory Day School to guide the Harlem basketball program, many people thought he made the wrong play - he was inheriting a team that had struggled for a decade, and he had agreed to coach the Lady Bulldogs, too.
Critics said coaching two teams would wear Chambers down and that losing eventually would break him down.
Instead, Chambers laid the law down.
"We're not going to put up with pity or sympathy from anyone," Chambers said. "The players are responsible for what they do in the classroom and out on that basketball court.
"Discipline is number one," he explained. "On road games, players are required to wear ties, there are no blue jeans, and there's no cutting up in class. We set the standard right there, and that's what comes out in these games."
The strict approach has transformed a run-and-gun team into tactical, high-percentage performers.
"Before, we were kind of out of control, playing too much street ball," Brown admitted. "Now we're starting to come together as a unit."
Said Chambers: "The biggest obstacle we've had to overcome at this school is playing defense. The players have always been offensive-minded, and we've had to teach them to play defense."
Despite not having a true center, Harlem has managed to mix it up inside for rebounds by using a zone defense, and ample team-speed keys a tenacious press.
On offense, the Bulldogs are loaded with good shooters, which has helped balance the scoring and keep opponents on edge.
Williams has led point production, Brown dominates the boards and Tim Camp provides defense and scoring, while seniors Travis Jackson and Kevin Ward are making solid contributions. Junior Julius Ball also is expected to see more playing time because senior point guard David Green is out with an injury.
Corey Ealy and Darien Jordan joined the team after the Christmas break, and they have brought on firepower. Jordan scored the game-winning points against Westside on a breakaway basket, and Ealy paced the Bulldogs past Richmond Academy with 24 points, including six 3-pointers.
"My man Corey brings a lot of energy to the game," Williams said. "Just everybody on this team does."
With five region games remaining (including Friday's game at Jefferson County - which was played after the News-Times' deadline), the Bulldogs are positioned to finish No. 1 or 2 in the final regular-season standings. That would secure the team a spot in the Class AAA playoffs.
But the win over Westside was costly, as Green suffered a separated shoulder late in the second half.
"That's going to be a major factor," Chambers said of losing Green. "He's the captain of our ship."
If Green is the captain, the admiral has to be Lewis, Harlem's athletic director.
"Jimmie Lewis has a lot to do with our success," Chambers says. "He is the backbone of this athletic department. He installed the Bigger, Faster, Stronger system (of weight training), and he has instilled the winning attitude at Harlem. We're just trying to borrow that a little bit."
The tradition continues
While the basketball team is on the verge of making the state playoffs four years after a winless season, Lewis achieved the feat faster in football - the Dogs were 0-10 on the gridiron in 1997, then advanced to the playoffs in 2000.
Then there's baseball. Lewis led the Dogs to a region crown last year, but with his lineup decimated by graduation, Harlem baseball might take a back seat to football and basketball.
"That'll never happen," Chambers said. "Jimmie's the man."
If baseball winds up being No. 3, Lewis will take it like a man.
"We're going to be mighty young, so that could happen," Lewis said. "But that wouldn't bother me a bit. I'm really happy for the basketball team to be doing so well."
"At the beginning of the season, winning a region championship was not something we mentioned. The players are the ones that have come through. I coach them and we work on different things at practice, but I'm not going to lie - they're the ones out there making the plays." Head Coach Kim Chambers
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.