Basketball season is ramping up around the county, and it’s time to get you ready for some hoops. The annual Coweta-Fayette Basketball Media Day served as a great jumping off point for the season, bringing together many of the area’s top coaches and players to share their thoughts on the year ahead. We’ve gathered them together to help you prepare for what’s sure to be another thrilling season on the courts.
Fayette County Tigers
Lady Tigers lose last year’s leader, feel confident in senior leadership
by Justin Fedich
The Fayette County Lady Tigers are down one notable member from last year, but you wouldn’t know it by the way head coach John Strickland discussed his two seniors who sat next to him at preseason media day.
Without last year’s do-it-all talent Darryl Langford, there is an obvious hole on a team that advanced to the second round of the state playoffs last season. Still, Strickland’s belief in his two seniors, Trinity Brown and Maegan Barkley, to step up and lead gives him the confidence that this team can improve upon last year’s output. Multi-sport senior star Rikkelle Miller gives them another outside threat, and rising sophomore Naomi Franco looks primed to make an impact in the paint after a season of seasoning.
“Our goal is to go farther,” Brown said.
Going into his 20th season with Fayette County and his 13th season as head coach, Strickland said there is a host of players around Brown and Barkley who are ready to contribute in a big way. When prompted to prognosticate how his coaching style would change from last season to this season, Strickland simply said, “About the same.”
He’s going to have extra help this season in former Division-I basketball player and coach Tessa Holt. She’ll be able to connect to with the players, Strickland said, in part because she used to play at Fayette County. Strickland was her coach.
“They can relate to her a lot better than they can relate to me,” Strickland said.
In the wake of Langford’s graduation, there is no outright leader on this team, at least not to start the season. Instead, the senior class will lead the team together, leaning on the chemistry they’ve built since middle school.
Many of the players have been together on the court for more than four years, something Barkley said already showed its value during an exhibition game this season when Brown and Barkley combined for 38 points.
Brown said knowing her teammates well can go a long way in ensuring this team takes a step forward.
“It’s all about chemistry at the end of the day,” Brown said. “You have to know your team and know what they’re going to do. Know their strengths. Know their weaknesses. That’s how you win games. That’s how you win championships.”
New faces never slow down Fayette County boys
by Christopher Dunn
No matter the pieces he’s given, Coach Andre Flynn will put them together until the Fayette County boys have solved the puzzle. This year isn’t nearly the first time Flynn has had to replace most of his roster. It never slowed the Tigers down in the past, and it won’t stop them this year either.
The lion’s share of the production from last year’s Final Four team graduated with Austin Nesmith, Jaylen Holloway, Phillip Young, and Noah Gurley. Make no mistake, it won’t be easy to replace a core like that, but thankfully, the cupboard isn’t bare, even if experience isn’t their strongest suit.
Josh Dupree and Jordan Brown earned plenty of minutes last season as sophomores and look primed to break out as juniors. Terrell Bradley and Ricky Knight have seen a lot of action in the backcourt, with Greg Smith in the paint. Jordan Turner and JeKobe Coleman joined the team late after football season and will be among those continuing to carve out roles as the season progresses. The Tigers won’t feature any prototypical post players, and instead will rely on athleticism and defensive tenacity.
They quickly announced their arrival with an early win over Sandy Creek, the preseason number two team in AAAA. Any smart team won’t take them lightly, even if they don’t recognize the faces on Fayette. By the end of the year, all those pieces will come together. They’ll undoubtedly shape up until the Tigers are firmly in the middle of the playoff picture.
Carlyle wants effort, defense in first season leading Lady Chiefs
by Jaylon Thompson
It may be a new environment for McIntosh girls basketball head coach Jessica Carlyle, but the principles of fundamental basketball remain the same.
She knows a good team is predicated on defense, energy, and effort. Those are the qualities she hopes to instill in her young team that is looking rebuild following a 20-9 season and second round exit from the playoffs.
“You are going to see these girls play some serious and intense defense,” Carlyle said. “Hopefully it will culminate in some offensive opportunities in transition.”
This offseason, Carlyle has drilled the Chiefs on defensive concepts. She focused several practices on rebounding and running the floor. Players have also learned about defensive positioning and hand placement when applying pressure.
Offensively, the Chiefs are working on being more efficient. Carlyle is implementing a mix of halfcourt and motion principles that are dependent on favorable matchups. She maintains that the team can shoot freely within the offense, but only if they are sound on both ends of the floor.
“This is all they have ever known as they were phenomenal in the half court and ran a well-patterned offensive set,” Carlyle said. “When you lose a bulk of your scoring and shooting, you have to figure out how you are going to get the offense going.”
Junior guards Rylee Calhoun and Kennedy Miller will be counted on to pick up the offense this season. Both players are dynamic at getting others involved, but now are being asked to be more aggressive within the offensive system.
Miller believes she will be a better leader this season after spending a portion of her summer at collegiate camps. She visited the University of Clemson among other schools to work on being more vocal.
The junior thinks she can make a major difference as an extension of Carlyle on the court, but she admits the process hasn’t been easy.
“I think it will be fun because the offensive style is way different than what we had last year,” Miller said. “The offense is now more about transition and defense. At first it was very tough to get accustomed to it, but it got easier as we went along.”
Calhoun agrees it was rough early on, but she is starting to see a difference in practice. She said the biggest difference is that everyone is trusting each other to make the right basketball play.
“It has been a huge change,” Calhoun said. “I know when we first met coach Carlyle in July, a lot of the girls struggled to get accustomed to the principles that she was implementing.”
Carlyle understands that this season could be a little different than in previous years, but she believes that the team will succeed if they stick to their principles. She wants the Chiefs to learn through each game and grow together as a team.
“It is not something that you can implement overnight, especially when you have girls that are a half court team,” Carlyle said. “I think they are buying in defensively and wanting to get the ball up the floor at a faster pace.”
McIntosh boys on the rise following successful offseason
by Jaylon Thompson
The McIntosh boys basketball team is ready to take the next step after a slight rebuild last season. The Chiefs have upgraded at several positions and will look different as senior point guard Zach Pina transferred in from rival Starr’s Mill.
Pina is a proven contributor at point guard and decided to play his final season with McIntosh to spend more time with his dad. He instantly adds veteran experience to the starting unit and another offensive scorer for head coach Jason Eisele.
“I am still trying to be a leader on and off the court to keep people in place,” Pina said. “I know that I am new, but I feel like I know what I am doing. It helps to have that experience in high school basketball to really help out.”
Pina is already inserting himself both ends of the court. This offseason, he worked on his ball handling and his defensive intensity. The senior guard wants to get to the rim and create for his teammates.
His addition could elevate the offensive potential of sharpshooting senior forward Cole Guenther. The 6-foot-7 forward came into his own after transitioning into a starter’s role last season. He is more comfortable in the offense and will benefit from the pick and roll chemistry that Pina provides the offense.
“I started off shaky last season as it was a huge role to go from sixth or seventh man to starting right away,” Guenther said. “I really picked it up at the end of the season and got a lot stronger.”
Eisele won’t need to extend Guenther too much this season with a vastly improved bench. The Chiefs will deploy 13 guys that are skilled in multiple areas.
Eisele expects junior guard Andrew Pinckney and senior playmaker Mills Berry to make contributions as well. Together the team can to capitalize on its strength and run a more versatile attack.
“We are going to play fast and it may seem chaotic to those that might not have seen it,” Eisele said. “These guys know that at the pace we are playing, no one is going to play 32 minutes. It remains to be seen how deep we are going to be, but a lot of people will be contributing.”
With a tough AAAAA Region 3 schedule, the Chiefs will have a tough road to climb towards playoff contention. They entered the season ranked in the top ten, but there are several big tests on their schedule with rivalry games against Fayette County, Starr’s Mill, and Sandy Creek coming up. Eisele has tried to block out the noise and have his team focused on each game individually. His philosophy is to be 1-0 at the end of each game.
“We are in a much better place this year than we were last year,” Eisele said. “I think every team has improved in our region and we are looking forward to the challenge.”
Sandy Creek Patriots
New roster, same expectations for Sandy Creek girls
by Justin Fedich
People look at Sandy Creek girls head coach Janie Hodges crazy when she says it.
“I think we can be better than we were last year.”
It’s not hard to see why that statement would draw some surprised looks. Sandy Creek’s girls basketball lost a lot of its production from last year. Gone are Shanquaylia Stanton, Kasey Toles, Morghan Currie, and Logan Bolton, but Hodges sees an opportunity to build upon last season’s Final Four appearance.
At the preseason media day, a new group of role players flanked Hodges, answering questions about how a team that looks so different can come into the season with the same goals.
Hodges’ claim that this year’s team is better than last year has an explanation. She said the Patriots are quicker on the defensive end this year. Offensively, without the same players scoring every possession, each player will have a chance to touch the ball. Hodges, a second-year coach, isn’t the only one optimistic heading into the season.
Sophomore Daija Powell, who showed potential as a freshman post player last season, is ready to take on a bigger role.
“I have more confidence,” Powell said.
The other two players in attendance, guard Nina Lum and forward Paris Thompson, are also buying in to the mentality that this year’s team is a special one. Lum said she’s been getting stronger in the gym to prepare for more minutes on the court, and Thompson said she’s fully healed from an injury that sidelined her last season.
In one season as Patriots head coach, Hodges made it to the Final Four. For her, it’s not a dream or a vision. It’s an expectation. What happened last year is done and over with.
“We just move forward to a new chapter,” Hodges said. “Turn the page.”
First-year Sandy Creek boys coach has sights set on state title
by Justin Fedich
Jon-Michael Nickerson was looking for a chance to get out of Alabama and go back to being a head coach. There were plenty of jobs available, but he only applied to two. One was the Sandy Creek boys head coach opening.
Nickerson, though he’d not yet coached in Georgia Class AAAA basketball, had heard of Sandy Creek and knew he was taking over a talented program.
When he arrived, he didn’t see the talent manifest in the way he’d like.
“It was a little bit rough at first,” Nickerson said.
The June practices, by the admission of both the coach and the players, weren’t as productive as they should’ve been. Nickerson had to teach his new players to be accountable for each other, and when they got back to the team in the fall, his players embraced the message of their first-year coach.
“Once they got back, they said, ‘we know what it takes now,'” Nickerson said.
For this team, the “what it takes” is presumably followed with “to win a state championship,” because, as the players expressed unanimously during Sunday’s preseason media day, anything less will be a disappointment.
Nickerson, who has coached at both the high school and college level, with stops at Faulkner University, IUPUI and Memphis, said at first, he took baby steps with his team. There’d be two good days or practice, and then one bad day. Now, every day is a high-energy practice, with a healthy level of aggression that shows this year’s team is bought into the championship mindset.
“If you want to be a great team and have a chance to do great things at the very end of the season, you can’t have off days,” Nickerson said.
Chris Porter, a guard/forward, said he saw the expectation level rise when Nickerson arrived on campus. Forward Xavier Brewer describes the practices as being more intense, adding, “All of us are locked in.” TJ Bickerstaff was not at media day, but he will be one of the top players in the county, if not the state.
Point guard Jarred Godfrey hinted that the change in mentality that Nickerson brought isn’t just a difference from last season.
“I feel like as a team we’ve never worked as hard as we have this year,” Godfrey said.
At media day, as Nickerson talked about how his team still needs to play catch-up because a majority of other AAAA teams have had the same coach and system for many years, one player was missing from the press conference.
Before the last question was asked, a guard known for his speed, Kameron Miller, jogged up to join his teammates at the press table. He only had time to answer a couple questions, but he made perhaps the boldest statement of the night.
“I feel like we’re going to win the state championship this year,” Miller said.
Starr’s Mill Panthers
Sweeney eyes ball movement in first season as head coach
by Jaylon Thompson
After finishing a game under .500 (12-13 overall) last season, there will be a new voice to lead the Starr’s Mill girls basketball team.
Emily Sweeney will take over clipboard duties from former coach Shane Ratliff. The longtime Panthers coach recently became the school’s athletic director and had Sweeney on his staff as an assistant last season.
In her first season, Sweeney hopes to instill a new identity to the Panthers. She wants the team to be active on both ends of the court and play with more tempo. The offense is predicated on pace and ball movement, and Sweeney hopes the new strategy will take hold as the season unfolds.
“We have seven returners on varsity, and we are lucky enough to have some girls that know what to do and what to expect,” Sweeney said.
Among those returning players is the dynamic backcourt of sophomore guard Alice Anne Hudson and junior guard Alyssa Angelo. Both players have experience leading the team, but will be asked to do a little more offensively this season.
“Our offense has been guard-heavy for the last few years, and I am fortunate to have Alyssa and Alice Anne as they know what to do,” Sweeney said. “They are teaching our younger girls how to do things correctly.”
Sweeney hopes both guards can be coaches on the floor for the Panthers. She has trusted them with more responsibility as leaders, and the decision has paid off.
The duo has worked hard in the offseason to add more playmaking to their repertoire. Angelo is focused on being more vocal on the court to thrive as an offensive facilitator.
“You have to keep them where they are supposed to be and teach them the new plays,” Angelo said.
Hudson has also expanded her leadership to the younger group. Sweeney spoke highly of her character and innate ability to stay calm in tough situations. It is that kind of leadership that the Panthers will need to reach the next level.
“Alice Anne is special. She is something that you don’t get often as she is strong and keeps everyone strong,” Sweeney said. “She is going to help us out tremendously.”
With a tough AAAAA Region 3 schedule, the Panthers know they must be aggressive early and often. Games against rivals Fayette County and McIntosh won’t be easy, but Sweeney believes the team is equipped for a run at the state playoffs. She knows the team needs some interior depth, but believes discipline and focus can get the job done.
“Our goal this year is to make it to the first round of the state tournament,” Sweeney said. “You also always want to have a winning season and have fun.”
Senior-laden Starr’s Mill boys ready to make run at the state playoffs
by Jaylon Thompson
Starr’s Mill boys basketball head coach Brandon Hutchins has seen a lot of talent walk through his gym doors.
In eight seasons, Hutchins won his share games with talented basketball players. He did it with a mix of youth and experience and sent players to prestigious collegiate programs. However, Hutchins feels that his current Panthers squad is different.
Hutchins is armed eight seniors that provide a lot of experience. With that amount of talent, he believes the Panthers can eclipse last season’s second round exit and make a legitimate run at the state championship.
“This is probably the most special group I had since I have been at Starr’s Mill,” Hutchins said. “It is kind of relaxing as a head coach knowing that you have eight seniors and a lot of depth.”
The Panthers return almost their entire squad, including first-team all-region senior forward Drew Hudson. He will lead an offensive attack that is centered on spacing the floor. Hudson will be joined by breakout star junior forward Nate Allison. The dynamic shooter can finish around the rim and score from distance.
Both players will be counted on to provide offensively against a tough schedule that features Fayette County, Griffin, McIntosh, and Newnan.
“When you have the talent and good kids that know how to win, like they did last year, as a head coach you just got to get out of the way and hope you don’t screw it up,” Hutchins said. “My job to give them the keys and let them go. Hopefully, I don’t get in the way.”
One of those keys will be given to senior guard Jake Bishop. The senior takes over for former starter Zack Pina, who transferred to rival McIntosh. Bishop has worked his way back from a broken arm that cost him playing time last season and feels equipped to run the offense.
“I really learned how much I like basketball and I practiced more this summer to get ready for this year,” Bishop said. “I am excited because I know that basketball was taken away, but now I am back and ready to get started again.”
Hutchins thinks that Bishop will thrive in the role and likes his unselfish ability to get others involved in the offense. He also praised his willingness to play both ends of the floor and thinks his leadership will be an asset throughout the season.
“He passes the ball very well and is very unselfish,” Hutchins said. “With the offense we run, you got to have someone who is unselfish, and he has done a great job with that.”
Hutchins knows all too well the talent in his region, but he thinks he team is focused to handle adversity.
“They have worked extremely hard,” Hutchins said. “I take none of the credit as those guys have worked their butts off for three years to get to this stage.”
His players agree and know that their final quest lies within the road to the state playoffs. They are focused and ready to make the run as a family.
“We worked very hard this offseason and went to a couple of camps during the summer,” Hudson said. “We were very successful during those camps. I think the state playoffs are calling our names again.”
Lady Wildcats eager to move past disappointing season
by Christopher Dunn
The Lady Wildcats came into last season with big aspirations, but a slate of injuries derailed them in a 13-12 campaign with no trip to the playoffs.
Coming off a playoff trip and with most of their core intact, 2016-17 looked like a chance for a young team to take a leap forward, but it wasn’t to be.
“We were all disappointed we didn’t make the playoffs, but we had a ton of injuries that came at the wrong time,” said Lady Wildcats coach Rashad Muhyee. “This year, if everyone stays healthy, I think we’ll be pretty good.”
With point guard Courtney Smith missing half the season and nagging injuries limited other players, the Cats didn’t have their full team together after January.
“I’m just glad to be back on the court with my teammates,” said Smith. “With all of us playing together, I think we’ll do good this year.”
Muhyee noted that Smith’s injury will make her a better player for the time she spent on the bench learning and picking his brain and leading her team.
“Courtney became a coach last year,” he said. “She really understands the game.”
Jada Claude gives the Cats a weapon with unlimited potential. Her ability to bang in the paint or work on the wing will stretch out defenses.
Those three-year starters Smith and Claude anchor the starting lineup along with Maya Bryant, who Muhyee called one of last year’s most pleasant surprises for her defense and rebounding, and a talented cast of returning contributors.
“I expect them to play well. I expect them to win. I don’t expect a lot of mistakes,” said Muhyee. “We don’t look at our opponents, we look at us. How are we going to get better, what are we trying to do, and how is it going to help us get to where we want to go.”
They want more than just a short stay in the postseason.
“Winning the region would be a big thing for us because it’s never happened, but one of main goals is to make it out of the first round of the playoffs,” said Muhyee. “We have to move on to the next level.”
Whitewater boys build confidence from wins over ranked foes
by Christopher Dunn
The Whitewater boys are coming off a season where their 9-15 record didn’t really reflect how well they played. Night in and night out, they showed they could play with any team, and they picked up signature wins against McIntosh and Starr’s Mill.
The Cats are eager to cleanse themselves of the taste of a foul finish to last year.
“We’ve got a big chip on our shoulder because of how our year ended last year,” said assistant coach Matt Martin, pinch hitting for head coach Fred West on media day, of a region tournament loss to Riverdale. “We had a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, and it all fell apart and they came back and beat us. We’ve been talking about that all spring, summer, and fall.”
Martin said he saw a lot of great things in the offseason, especially in light of losing who would have been their top returning player to transfer. They return a lot of contributors in Josh Lanier, Copeland Jackson, K’won Bush, Isaiah Claude, and Julian Johnson. The key will be to develop depth inside.
To take advantage of a deep rotation of guards with heart and hustle, the Cats will press the opposition from end to end, and on offense they’ll move and work screens to set up the outside shot.
With a friendly non-region slate that will see them play almost exclusively at home until January, the aim is an achievable one.
“Our biggest goal is just getting to the playoffs and seeing our name on that bracket,” said Martin. “We were so close last year and did everything right for three quarters, we just didn’t finish the deal.”
Our Lady of Mercy Bobcats
Mercy girls out to prove they’re a team of stars
by Christopher Dunn
The Lady Bobcats are out to prove they’re not just a one-woman team. The whole state knows about Florida State signee Morgan Jones, but it will be the rest of the team that dictates how long Mercy’s season lasts.
The 6’2” star Jones can do it all for the Bobcats, and she has certainly done her share so far. Against Trinity Christian she dropped 51 points, and she followed that up with 37 points and 14 rebounds against Whitewater.
“Of course Morgan’s going to get hers,” Coach Kevin Walker said with a smile.
What will tell the story of the season is the players beyond Jones. Every team will set out to shut her down, and someone will have to chip in to ease the pressure. They’ll look to point guard Jordan Patten, D’Maya Walker, and Eboni Winston, who returns after a year off the court, to keep opposing defenses honest.
“If we can get someone scoring other than Morgan, I think we’ll be fine. We are definitely capable of it,” said Walker. “If we can get another 15-20 points (a night) from our other kids, I think we’ll be fine.”
The Bobcats lack the height to beat teams in the post, so they’ll rely on speed and heart. They’re starting to click on defense too.
“Offensively I really want to push the ball. I want to get out in transition,” said Walker. “They’ll never say we got out-hustled.”
Walker believes the playoffs could be in their future with some good fortune and dedication.
“If we can stay healthy and get one percent better every day, I think we’ll shock some people.”
Mercy boys under construction, but not shying away from work
by Christopher Dunn
There’s a familiar face leading the way, but pretty much everything is different for the boys team at Our Lady of Mercy.
Gone is longtime head coach Tony Caruso, one of the most respected coaches in the area, and the bulk of the on-court production is graduated too. The Bobcats are grooming alum Najgee Gatson to take over the coaching reigns. After his Mercy playing days, Gatson played at Spring Hill where he continued to foster his passion for coaching.
“We’re very, very excited about Najgee. He was a very good player for us,” said athletic director and coach Bill Schmitz. “You can’t find a more quality person than Najgee. He is new to being a high school basketball coach, but he has experience from playing and coaching in college.”
The young team is responding to their fresh-faced coach.
“They relate great to him,” said Schmitz. “He’s literally been in their locker room.”
He’ll be breaking in a mostly-new roster. Beyond Jason Moran and Anthony Angelety, there won’t be much varsity experience. They also lack prototypical post players.
“I think we’re going to have our struggles early, but we have a good enough nucleus of kids and coaches that we’re going to see some success,” said Schmitz. “How quickly we gel together as a team will determine how much success we have.”
On top of that, several key contributors were late joining the squad because of the success of the football team. From what the coaches have seen, the team has the heart to turn around the ship even if they have a rough start.
“I think you can discount whatever you’re seeing in the first two to three weeks,” said Schmitz. “I can almost promise you that by mid to late year that we’re going to see a completely different team.”