Friday September 22nd, 2017 12:27AM

Basketball: Postseason success guided by veteran leadership

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
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The Dawson County girls trailed from the start; North Hall's boys were down seven at halftime; Gainesville's boys faced a four-point deficit with two minutes to play.

Welcome to playoff basketball. No matter how much talent you may possess, that ability will be tested -- and if it is callow, you will quickly find yourself heading home.

The Lady Tigers, Trojans and Red Elephants showed last week, however, that skill backed with experience is a recipe for success.

All three teams fought back to pull off second round victories, and it should come as no surprise that each features a senior-laden squad. In fact of the six area teams left playing in this week's GHSA quarterfinals, almost all of them feature veteran leadership.

(NOTE: To see a list of all of this week's quarterfinal games and tip-off times, scroll down. Also be sure to see the Jacobs Media broadcast schedule included.)

At this time of season there is simply no substitute for a steady hand.

"You have to keep your poise and composure under pressure at this time of year," Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said.

Cottrell's Red Elephants have done that in back-to-back playoff wins, reaching the third round of the postseason for the first time since a 2009 Class AAA semifinal run -- a team that also featured plenty of seniors. This year's Gainesville squad includes nine seniors and a junior that has starred for three seasons and each has played a key role in helping the Red Elephants into Wednesday's Class AAAAA quarterfinal showdown with New Manchester.

"Go down the list and each one of them brings something special and unique to the team," said Cottrell, whose team knocked off Mays last week via big plays from up and down the roster, including seniors Shaquan Cantrell, Caleb Hayman, Tray Harrison, Luke Morre, Chase England, Reed Tipton, Jikeese Ruff and junior Deshaun Watson.

"I just hope we've got some more basketball left for them."

It is a sentiment echoed by a number of area coaches, none more so than North Hall boys leader Benjie Wood.

After watching his senior class -- which makes up the bulk of the Trojans' production most nights -- storm to a 27-3 record and 93 victories -- so far -- over the past four seasons, the coach is not the only one itching for another chance to get on the court.

"These kids have played together since middle school and they don't want to let each other down," said Wood of a class that includes Ebo Smith, Adam Kelly, Griffin Olson Zach Tibbs and Taylor Ryder. "At this point they know what to expect; they've been through all the hard stuff. Now it's just time to have fun."

North Hall certainly enjoyed the second half of last week's second round Class AAA defeat of Morgan County, outscoring the Bulldogs 25-14 in the second half en route to the Trojans' first quarterfinal appearance since a semifinal charge in 2010 -- a campaign in which many of North Hall's current seniors watched from the sideline.

"These guys have been through thick and thin; they're high character and they're reliable," Wood said. "The biggest thing though is that they're just not ready for it to end. They know if they lose it's more than just the end of the season."

And yet even with all of the emotions at play, it is the experience of seasons and games past that allows upperclassmen to put all of that into perspective once tip-off time arrives.

"Our kids haven't said much about how big of a deal this is," Dawson County girls coach Steve Sweat said after watching his Lady Tigers storm to their first quarterfinal appearance since reaching three straight state semifinals in 1990-92. "They just get out there and get down to business. They want to win, and I think that has been a big deal for us."

So too has been his seniors' willingness to incorporate some talented younger players into the gameplan, as veterans like four-year starter Carly Gilreath and senior standouts Allie Costley, Hannah Porter, Kenna Seitz, Kacie Bearden and Whitney Glover combine with sophomore Sheyenne Seabolt, Ashley Parker and Karlie Bearden.

"Sometimes that doesn't always work, but our kids have all come together, and that's been a huge," said Sweat, who coached the 1990-92 teams that included some mothers of the current crop of Lady Tigers. "I think our experience has really carried us a long way, and everyone is focusing on their role."

Even the one area team that features precious little in the way of four-year standouts -- Towns County plays just two seniors -- has watched its veterans come up big in key moments as the postseason picked up pace.

"Emily Anderson has been a role player for us, but she had some moments in the spotlight in the region (8-A) tournament," Lady Indians coach Jim Melton said. "And Friday against Calhoun County (in the first round of the Class A public bracket) she scored 10 points. So she's making the most of this."

The other senior -- Dadrian Blythe -- starts and has helped smooth the way for a team that had to replace three senior starters from last season. Junior Cochran also earned plenty of experience as a starter on last year's state tournament squad.

"Our girls are just used to winning and know the system," Melton said. "And they have provided great competition for each other at practice."

That has also been the case at Buford, where senior standouts such as Mackenzie Darrah, Maya Dillard and Kristina Nelson are pushed each day in preparation for competition.

"Our seniors have been so special to us," said Lady Wolves coach Gene Durden, whose team has leaned on the veteran triumvirate throughout the region and state playoffs. "On any other team Maya would get a lot of coverage, but she's our leader; she runs our show. Mackenzie is so versatile and presents a match-up nightmare for everyone. She's 6-4 and can post up or shoot the three. And Kristina has really stepped up here this postseason. They are foundation players for us."

The Buford boys too have success grounded in experience, as seniors A.J. Davis, Isaiah Williams, Brad Mapes and Coby Durden have helped the Wolves storm through the campaign -- looking to get back to the championship game appearance that Buford made in 2011 after suffering a second round exit in last year's postseason.

"The best teams I've been around have all had internal leadership, and that's what seniors do for you," Cottrell said. "The other night whenever we had a timeout or break in play I hardly had to say anything in the huddle. Those guys all know what they need to do. I just have to get them to the gym on time and let them play."

As each remaining area team has shown it's a responsibility they are ready for -- and not ready to let go.

"These guys are already champs," Wood said. "You don't have to have a ring on your finger to prove your a champion. And that's what these guys already are."


Class AAA
Decatur at Dawson County, 6 p.m.
St. Pius X at Buford, 6 p.m. -- Radio: WDUN AM 550/102.9 FM

Class A Public
Claxton at Towns County, 6 p.m.

New Manchester at Gainesville, 7 p.m. -- Radio: WDUN AM 550/102.9 FM

Class AAA
St. Pius X at North Hall, 7 p.m.
Woodward Academy at Buford, 7 p.m.
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