Donnie Byrom and Lindsay Justice are no strangers to the state basketball playoffs.
Byrom has led four different teams -- Eagles Landing, Pickens, Wayne County, and North Oconee -- to the state playoffs in his nearly 30 years of coaching. Justice was an integral part of the recent playoff runs by Flowery Branch, including a march to last year’s Class 5A state championship game, as an assistant to Courtney Newton-Gonzalez.
Their current teams, however, are.
Byrom, in just his first season of taking over the East Jackson program, has guided the Lady Eagles to their first-ever playoff appearance in their 12-year history. Justice, taking over the brand new Cherokee Bluff program, has helped steer the Lady Bears to the school’s first-ever playoff appearance in their inaugural campaign.
East Jackson has been a program in perpetual rebuild having never had a winning season -- the Lady Eagles currently are 11-17 after capturing a surprising No. 3 seed in the rugged Region 8-3A tournament -- and the 2018-19 campaign looked like more of the same after an 0-7 beginning. But off-and-on injuries to several key players contributed to the slow start.
Byrom said once they finally got healthy he developed what he calls the “Iron 5” of seniors Brynna Cozzens and Abbie Howington, sophomores Maurissa Thomas and Kenzie Whitehead, and freshman Haven Rollins. They have gone 11-10 since, which tied the program-record for wins in a season, and snagged the most region wins in a season (4) as well. They capped it off with a 64-42 win over Franklin County, a Class 3A semifinalist in 2018, in the first round of the region tournament to garner their first-ever playoff spot and beat Monroe Area 58-41 in the third-place game.
“We didn’t have a lot of depth to start with so I just decided to develop our five best players and conditioned them to play the entire 32 minutes, barring foul trouble or injury,” he said. “They really improved as the season went on. Against Franklin (in the region tournament) we did not sub until the end after we got the big lead and the same against Monroe Area. I really feel like we played our best three games of the season in the tournament.
“The girls are real excited about this opportunity. None of them have had this experience in basketball so it’s great to see them have some success. The only thing they really lacked was the confidence that they could compete. We had never beaten Franklin as a program and we beat them during the regular season and I think that got them believing a little bit. After winning two games in the tournament, I think they believe now that they can play and understand what they need to do.”
The Lady Eagles will have a tough playoff opener traveling to Pace Academy (16-7) which had a 6-game win streak snapped in a 46-44 loss to Lovett in the Region 5-3A championship game.
“(Pace) is playing well right now and they have a lot of seniors and shoot the ball well,” Byrom said. “Both teams average around 48 points a game so I think that plays well to our style. We will need to take care of the ball, shoot the ball well, stay out of foul trouble, and play good defense. If we do those things well, we definitely have a chance.”
Lovett is 9-2 at home this season, however, East Jackson is a respectable 6-7 on the road.
Now, to the Lady Bears. Typically for new programs like Cherokee Bluff first-season expectations are tempered. But Justice was handed a roster that included three players with a plethora of varsity experience -- seniors Maddie Thomas (Banks County) and Chelsea Reece (Johnson) and junior Madi Phillips (White County) -- to combine with a young roster that included uber-talented freshman Timber Gaither.
Time was something Justice knew would be a key factor.
“I was new, the players were all new to each other, so we knew it was going to take some time for all of us to get to know each other and for the coaches to see what exactly we had and who fit best together,” Justice said. “It has taken some time but I really feel that the last two weeks heading into the (Region 7-3A) tournament we had really begun to step up our game.”
The Lady Bears faced a solid Lumpkin County squad in the first round of the region tournament. The Lady Indians already owned two double-digit wins over the Bluff and had beaten defending state champion Greater Atlanta Christian as well.
But the Lady Bears were able to weather several runs by Lumpkin County and hold on late for a 53-48 victory to clinch a playoff spot.
“We felt very confident going into that game. Half the battle in being successful is just the belief that you can win. The girls believed they could win the game and played one of their best games of the season,” Justice said. “We let them enjoy it a little bit for sure. Now we’re ready to see what we can do in the (state) playoffs. For me what is the best part is girls like Chelsea getting this opportunity to experience the state playoffs.”
Region 7-3A No. 4-seed Cherokee Bluff (13-15) will travel to face Region 6-3A champion Sonoraville (20-8) in the first round. Despite the seeding difference, Justice feels their daily slog through Region 7-3A, with three teams ranked in the top 10 at various points in the season, has more than prepared them for whatever awaits.
“Sonoraville is a solid team. It will take our best effort. But we feel very battle-tested against playoff-caliber teams,” Justice said. “They have three or four girls that can really shoot the 3-ball so we have to play good defense and not turn the ball over.”
Both East Jackson and Cherokee Bluff more than likely will be considerable underdogs in their first foray into playoff basketball. However, if both manage to pull off the upsets, they will meet in the second round in Commerce.
FIRST ROUND GIRLS
(Buford plays a doublehedaer with boys and girls on Friday)
(Games listed by classification and time)
(Area teams in bold)
FRIDAY (Feb. 9)
Gainesville (Region 8, Seed 4) at Langston Hughes (Region 5, Seed 1), 7 p.m.
Chamblee girls (R5, S4) at Buford (R8, S1), 6 p.m.
Miller Grove boys (R5, S4) at Buford (R8, S1), 7:30 p.m.
Chestatee (R7, S4) at Heritage-Catoosa (R6, S1), 6 p.m.
Pickens (R6, S4) at Flowery Branch (R7, S1), 6 p.m.
White County (R7, S3) at Northwest Whitfield (R6, S2), 6 p.m.
East Jackson (R8, S3) at Pace Academy (R5, S2), 5:30 p.m.
Dawson County (R7, S3) at Coahulla Creek (R6, S2), 6 p.m.
North Murray (R6, S3) at North Hall (R7, S2), 6 p.m.
Cherokee Bluff (R7, S4) at Sonoraville (R6, S1), 7 p.m.
Banks County (R8, S3) at Bremen (R5, S2), 6 p.m.
Heard County (R5, S4) at Rabun County (R8, S1), 6:30 p.m.
Class A Public
Commerce (21) at Dooly County (12), 5 p.m.
Lanier County (19) at Towns County (14), 5:30 p.m.