Two seasons ago, Harlem won the boys championship at the Columbia County JV basketball tournament.
Everything appeared promising until Grovetown High School opened its doors the next school year, and received most of the student-athletes on that team.
When the dust settled, Harlem had just three members remaining from that title-winning team -- Darius Johnson, Jesse Gay and Manuel Waisome, all three now seniors.
"At first, there was a lot of negativity," Waisome said. "Not towards us three, but people saying we don't have a team. Coach (Kim) Chambers just said we were starting a new team.
"He said, 'Even though they left, we're still a part of this team and we can build another one no matter what.'"
Fast-forward to Dec. 10. It's the day normalcy might have finally kicked in again.
It's the day the Bulldogs got their first victory in nearly two years, winning 74-63 at home against Taliaferro County.
"I had worried that they had forgotten that feeling," Chambers said. "The real joy of it is the fact that we started from nothing, basically, then we built it back up to where we're competitive again."
The Bulldogs' last victory had come Feb. 10, 2009, when they beat Westside, 63-52.
"We really wanted to jump up and down and run around the court, but we couldn't do that because we wanted to show character," he said. "When we took it to the locker room, we celebrated real good."
The victory was even more meaningful, considering Johnson's performance. The forward tied a school record by scoring 31 points.
"I really wasn't expecting it," he said. "I just wanted to go out and win. That's all I kept thinking."
After a steal late in the game, Johnson had a breakaway layup opportunity that would have put him atop the record book all by himself. But while outracing defenders, he overran the basket slightly and missed.
Still, it was a special night. Johnson made three first-half 3-pointers, adding another in the second half. He had 17 points at halftime.
After the half, defenders had to respect the long-range shooting, allowing him to go inside.
"I saw that once I penetrated, they couldn't stop me," Johnson said. "So I just kept doing that. I kept getting to the free-throw line, and I only missed a couple of those."
Chambers noted that, in past years, Taliaferro might have been considered somewhat of a pushover. That isn't the case this year.
The Bulldogs had lost 66-53 to the Jaguars earlier in the season. In that game, four Jaguars were in double figures, displaying Taliaferro's balance.
"It was definitely a legit win," Chambers said.
Last year, players with no basketball experience had to step in to try to help the cause.
"We were just trying to help each other out, yet still trying to win," Gay said. "But it was almost like a rebuilding year."
This year has been marked by improvement.
The Bulldogs lost their first game of the season by 37 to Greenbrier. Then, they lost by 25 to Evans, by 13 to Taliaferro and by 10 to Lakeside.
Then, Harlem started to show positive signs. By turning the ball over much less, the Bulldogs nearly knocked off Lakeside before falling by just three points. They played Greenbrier close, falling by 10 after being routed by the Wolfpack earlier in the season.
Chambers believes his team will be competitive with nearly every team on its Region 3-AAA North schedule.
"It's just been a progression where these guys have been just putting forth the effort, listening to what we're talking about and getting better defensively," he noted.
Region play for Harlem begins Jan. 7 at Grovetown. The game will reunite players who once won a JV championship together.
"It is hard going against them, but it's fun at the same time because I'm still good friends with most of them," Gay said.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.