It was December and Justin Rhode was just proving his worth as a freshman.
The newcomer started on what was already a deep Whale Branch Early College High School boys basketball team. He was even the team's leading scorer through the first six games. But driving to the basket during practice, Rhode stepped on a teammate's foot and turned his right foot the wrong way.
A second opinion showed a small fracture. Rhode missed more than five weeks.
His spot in the lineup wasn't guaranteed. The Warriors, ranked No. 1 in Class 1-A most of the season, played about everybody and were content to plug in the next guy and keep going.
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Rhode worked, though, earned back his starting spot for the important Region 5-A games and even re-invented himself, moving to the wing from point guard after his injury to better fit the Warriors' personnel.
"He's going to be an unbelievable player," Whale Branch coach Linc Lyles said.
Rhode helped the Warriors rout Cross, 80-33, at home Tuesday to open the Class 1-A playoffs, setting up a home date Friday with Timmonsville in the second round.
Contributions like Rhode's build the fabric of this balanced Whale Branch team as it tries for a state title. Depth has been its strength but soon will be tested.
Whale Branch on Friday will be without brothers Simeon and Michael Middleton, Seventh Day Adventists who observe the Sabbath from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.
"We're definitely going to miss them," said Rhode, who scored 10 points Tuesday. "We've just got to believe in each other."
Lyles is wary of Timmonsville, which he likened to Region 5-A runner-up Allendale-Fairfax, which split with the Warriors during the regular season. Timmonsville defeated Hannah-Pamplico, 61-50, in its first-round matchup.
The Warriors' depth was on display Tuesday. Five Warriors reached double figures, a number Lyles said has been a goal all season. With a modest 10-point lead midway through the second quarter, Whale Branch ran out, forcing turnovers and making easy layups.
"We put our aggressive defense on them and pushed forward," Rhode said.
A frustrated Cross coach Winston Williams told his team before the second half to get back on time, that the Warriors were beating his players down the floor every time.
The Trojans were held without a field goal during the third quarter. Whale Branch outscored them 19-2 to blow open the game.
Williams said starting point guard Dionte Evans suffered from a sprained ankle and didn't play after testing the ankle early on. Otherwise, he thought his team came out uninspired after a long, rainy drive.
"We've played better all season defensively," Williams said. "For some reason, we came into tonight not focused on what we wanted to accomplish."
Class 1-A boys playoffs, first round
Whale Branch 80, Cross 33
Cross (6-18)-- Jaywan Washington 9, Xavier Steed 6, Jamar Matthews 5, Dawayne Gadis 5, Diamonte Evans 3, De'Quan Chambers 3, Dionte Evans 2.
Whale Branch (21-3)-- Charles Jiles 14, Terrell Hazell 10, Simeon Middleton 10, Justin Rhode 10, Dee Delaney 10, Jay Abney 6, David Lamb 5, Chavone Simmons 4, Denzel Daniel 3, Jovelle Coakley 2, Marcus Bell 2, Michael Middleton 2, Malik Spicer 2.