HOLLYWOOD – She enters the locker room and the music and chatter quickly die down.
She stands between the lockers as the players settle onto the wooden benches and a dozen pairs of eyes give her their undivided attention.
It’s just minutes away from the opening tipoff between Baptist Hill and the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science. The pregame talk is short and to the point, not unlike thousands of speeches given by thousands of high school basketball coaches in locker rooms across the country.
But something is different. Cez Champagne is the head coach of the Baptist Hill boys varsity team — one of the first woman to coach a boys high school basketball team in the state.
Champagne took over the boys basketball program a year ago and has turned Baptist Hill into a championship team. After struggling to a 4-13 record her first season, the Bobcats are 14-6 overall and winners of the Region 4-A title with a 12-0 league record. It’s the first region championship in three years for the Bobcats, who begin the playoffs next week.
“She knows the game and she knows how to get the most out of us,” said Baptist Hill senior guard and team captain Justin Grant. “She’s a great coach.”
Champagne was a star basketball player at Middleton High School in the late 1990s and played at both East Tennessee State and later at Charleston Southern.
When she graduated from Charleston Southern, Champagne began her coaching career at First Baptist as an assistant coach for the girls team. It was not a meteoric rise for Champagne, who did stints as an assistant coach at St. John’s, James Island and Military Magnet before being hired as the girls varsity coach at Baptist Hill in 2011.
Marion Brown, the athletic director at Baptist Hill, noticed an immediate change in the girls program.
“Coach Champagne knows her stuff and knows how to motivate,” Brown said. “She’s very serious about coaching and she’s very intense. She wants everyone who plays for her to play their best.”
In 2015, Baptist Hill boys coach Michael Breedlove left to become the head coach at Stall.
Brown knew he had the right candidate for the vacancy already on campus. It was just a matter of convincing Champagne that she was the right person for the job.
“Look, I knew she was the coach I wanted from the very beginning,” Brown said. “When I talked to her about the job, I think she was a little hesitant to take it, but I told her to think about it.”
Champagne mulled over Brown’s offer and finally decided it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass on.
“I knew it would be a chance for me to become a better coach,” Champagne said. “I knew it would be a chance to take my coaching skills to another level. I knew it would be challenge, but I wasn’t fearful at all. I had confidence in myself.”
The only issue was getting the boys to jump on board with a woman coach. Champagne had been teaching physical education at the school for four years and already had a rapport with the players.
“When she was the girls coach I’d go to her and she would help me work on my game,” Grant said.
It only took a few practices for Grant and his teammates to realize that Champagne wasn't messing around. She knew her stuff.
“She showed us some new drills and a whole lot of new plays,” Grant said. "She was on us from the first practice."
It didn’t take long for the players to accept Champagne as their new coach.
“She’s intense, she wants to win and she wants us to be our best every practice and every game,” Grant said.
Besides a few double takes from opposing fans and players, Champagne has been accepted by her coaching counterparts.
“I think when the game is going on, it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman,” Champagne said. “I hold myself accountable. You can either coach or you can’t. I’m confident in my knowledge of the game and getting the most out of my players.”
Still, Champagne understands that her success could lead to more women coaching at the varsity boys level.
“I don’t take this position for granted,” Champagne said. “Coaching is coaching. If you know the game and understand how to motivate and execute a game plan, then coaching shouldn’t have anything to do with being a man or a woman.”
Brown believes that Champagne’s success could open the door for more athletic directors to think outside the box.
“I guarantee it’ll make them think about it,” Brown said. “If she starts putting together winning seasons, the athletic directors will start looking for the best coach no matter if they are men or women.”