Robert Cartwright has been key to the Flintridge Prep boys¿ basketball team¿s success since he was a freshman. As a junior, he and the Rebels are eying another CIF title. (File Art)

Robert Cartwright has been key to the Flintridge Prep boys¿ basketball team¿s success since he was a freshman. As a junior, he and the Rebels are eying another CIF title. (File Art) (January 19, 2013)

It didn't take long for Garrett Ohara to realize Robert Cartwright was going to be something special on Flintridge Prep's basketball court.

The Rebels boys' basketball coach first saw Cartwright, who was first a student in his junior high math class, display his skills on the court about four years ago on a school trip when a group of kids started playing basketball during free time.

“I went, 'Oh my goodness, this kid is going to be special,'“ Ohara said of Cartwright, who was a seventh grader at the time. “There wasn't one particular thing, just the first time I saw him play basketball I saw he was advanced beyond his years.”

The 17-year-old Cartwright has certainly lived up to that statement. He made an immediate impact for the Rebels as a freshman, as the starting point guard for the CIF Southern Section Division V-AA champions in 2011. He averaged 11.6 points, 3.9 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals a game and earned second-team All-Prep League honors in the process.

“You don't see that,” Ohara said of Cartwright's role as a first-year varsity player. “We've had freshmen who play on varsity, a few who've started but none who've had the poise he did.”

Two years ago, Kenyatta Smith was at the center of Flintridge Prep basketball – literally and figuratively. The big man shouldered the biggest load for the Rebels in the championship run and logged 20 points, 14.7 rebounds and 4.8 blocks a game, which made life easy for Cartwright.

“His role freshman year because we had Kenyatta was more to just run the offense and get Kenyatta the ball,” Flintridge Prep senior shooting guard Jedrick Eugenio said.

Still, Cartwright was undeniably a key part to Prep's title. He had seven points in the title-clinching victory over Muir, 47-44, in 2011, including the final two points of the game on a layup off a rebound and outlet pass from Smith.

Smith's pass to Cartwright, which helped secure the program's first title, could also be seen as a passing of the torch or the reins to the team and its future onto the freshman.

“Considering that was our first championship, we all want another one,” Cartwright said. “We've tasted that feeling and we're chasing it again. It just makes us hungrier to try and top what we did that year.”

To do that, Cartwright has been asked to take on a bigger role in a Prep uniform each year.

As a sophomore, he reaped first- and second-team honors in the Prep League and division, respectively. Cartwright made up a dangerous backcourt duo last year alongside senior shooting guard Kory Hamane, who earned All-Prep League MVP and first-team division honors after averaging a team-high 15.2 points.

Although Cartwright gave way to Hamane in 2012, he still saw an increase in his scoring (14 points), assists (4.1), rebounds (2.8) and steals (2.5) averages.

“As a freshman, you just want to go out and play, you don't do too much. You let the seniors provide the leadership,” Cartwright said. “Sophomore year you take on a little bit more of a leadership role, you're the point guard and the coach on the floor. This year, definitely I try to take on a leadership role.”

Eugenio describes Cartwright as a “calm, level-headed leader” who helps direct the team emotionally in the locker room and on the court with his play.

“He is our offensive and more of our defensive leader this year,” Eugenio said. “It's a lot, but if there's anyone who can handle it, it's Robert.”

Cartwright is averaging career highs in points (17.4), assists (4.8), rebounds (3.9) and steals (4.5) 16 games into a season in which the Rebels have posted an 11-5, 4-0 in league record and are ranked No. 2 in their division.

Prep is currently staring up at a dominant Village Christian squad, which is looking to defend its CIF State Division V title this year, in the Division V-AA rankings. If the Rebels hope to win their second title in three years, they may have to go through the Crusaders.

“We don't really focus on it,” Ohara said, “but we certainly think it's something we have a shot at doing.”