Chavone Simmons remembers the ring from his first meeting with Linc Lyles.
Simmons, then preparing to become part of the first freshman class at Whale Branch Early College High School, listened to Lyles introduce himself as the Warriors' first boys basketball coach. He saw the jewelry from the 2007 North Carolina Class 4-A state championship, which Lyles earned as coach at New Hanover High School in Wilmington.
In those first days, the Warriors worked out at the Whale Branch Middle School gym while the high school was completed. Mornings were for football and the evenings reserved for basketball.
Simmons and fellow senior Jay Abney are the lone holdovers from that first group.
They trusted Lyles' pedigree and filled their roles, which over the next four seasons required big minutes at times and smaller contributions in others. Lyles said he mentioned the state championship fewer than a handful of times, wanting to establish new parameters at Whale Branch.
But when it was brought up, it was as a dangled carrot. This is what is possible.
Now Whale Branch is a step away for a second consecutive year. The Warriors play C.A. Johnson on Saturday in Colonial Life Arena for the Class 1-A championship.
The original Warriors, Simmons and Abney, will complete the cycle they began in 2010. After a runner-up finish as juniors, going out a state champion might seem the inevitable conclusion, but they know better.
"We don't want to have the feelings again of losing," said Simmons, a guard who started against Hemingway in the Lower State final. "We know the experience and how it feels."
Abney, the senior forward, has taken on a reduced role this season as the Warriors' bench expanded.
He averaged 7.9 points per game and 5.7 rebounds as a junior. As a senior, he averages 2.9 points and 3.6 rebounds.
Abney has made the most of his minutes, content to contribute to team victories. He grabbed seven rebounds during the Lower State championship game to match his season high. He made a big basket late in the game to help the Warriors defeat C.E. Murray in the second round.
"We have had different roles every year," said Abney, whose father, John, has introduced Whale Branch players on the public address system since that first season. "But we always trust the system."
Whale Branch players rarely know who will start games until shortly before the opening tip. When Simmons is on the bench, he is the cheerleader, encouraging the reserves to stay loud and trying to get the other team on edge.
When a Whale Branch student engaged a Timmonsville player on Twitter before the teams met in third round, Simmons stepped in to cut off communication.
"I just want to make sure we remain humble," Simmons said.
Lyles remembers Simmons and Abney being among the ones ready to go each day while the program tried to find its footing.
The Warriors won seven games that first season. The next year they went 15-8 and lost a heartbreaker to Burke in the opening round.
And last year, Whale Branch won 24 games before losing to Lewisville in Colonial Life Arena.
Abney and Simmons have not needed to preach to this team. Many of the same players experienced the biggest stage.
Their job is to be ready.
"That's the look I get from MooMoo (Simmons) and Jay every time they're not in the game," Lyles said. "They look at me like 'I'm ready, Coach.' "