Among stale sports maxims, "work hard" might trump them all. Work hard and you'll succeed. It's typically the same, tired discourse - the safe answer, the right answer.

But when the coaches and players at Imhotep Charter say they work hard, they say it with conviction. You can hear it in their voices.

"That's all we need to do!" Erik Copes, Imhotep's 6-foot-9 forward/center, said emphatically, his voice hitting a booming crescendo on the letter "d." "Work . . . hard."

For Imhotep - the Public League's two-time and defending champion, the defending District 12 Class AA titlist, and the 2009 PIAA Class AA state champ - that is the one unwavering motto: Hard work pays off.

The Panthers hardly have an off-season. They lift and do strength training year-round, and they run cross-country for cardio.

"Our guys are pretty much basketball players 12 months a year," coach Andre Noble said.

For a small school that joined the Public League just this decade, it's astounding. The team has won at least 20 games overall every year it has been in the league, except its first.

Last season, when they lost in the state semifinals to Strawberry Mansion, the Panthers went 25-6 overall and 14-2 in the league.

This season, Noble's squad boasts three Division I recruits, it is ranked No. 28 in the nation by ESPN, and according to the coach, 10 of the Panthers' 11 nonleague games are against teams nationally ranked by one publication or another, including area powers Penn Wood and Friends' Central.

Copes has committed to George Washington, where his uncle is an assistant coach. David Appolon, a 6-foot-3 guard, will play for Robert Morris, and 6-foot-4 swingman Ameen Tanksley is headed to Niagara.

Appolon dubs the trio the team's "three-headed dragon." But Noble, who has headed the program since its inception, believes all his players will play on the next level - including six seniors he predicts will play Division I or II hoops next year.

In short, the Panthers have depth. They return seven players from their top rotation last season and have nine seniors on the roster. Brandon Austin, a sophomore, gives the team extra scoring. They added junior Khyree Wooten, a big-time transfer from Strawberry Mansion.

"I don't know who will lead us in scoring this year," Noble said, "and the better thing is I don't think [the players] care."

A lot of the team's success will rely on the inside play of Copes, who has worked tirelessly to become a force in the paint after he rode the bench as an underclassman. His physicality allows him to rebound, defend down low, and block shots.

Adding to his offensive repertoire last summer (posting up, adding a short jumper) had schools such as UConn, Georgetown, and West Virginia aiming for his services.

Copes' personal credo? Naturally: "Hard work, pays off. That's my motto. Stay humble, stay hungry. And keep working."

The primary message Noble preaches is twofold: We're good, but how can we be great? Work hard to improve, but never look too far ahead.

But with Imhotep's perennial success in the Public League, District 12, and state tournament, it seems difficult not to peek forward.

"Take my word," Appolon said. "We're going to win all three."

Contact Evan Burgos