When Sandy Creek Patriots head coach Jon-Michael Nickerson was hired after last season, he had a goal of building a culture of success around the Patriots program. He also had a plan to focus on leadership, accountability, and respect for the game.
Each player had to buy into his message and be the best version of themselves on a nightly basis. For Nickerson, it was about developing young men to be successful on and off the court.
It is safe to say that Sandy Creek achieved those goals this season. The Patriots battled through adversity and were one of the strongest teams in Region 5-AAAA play. On Saturday night, Sandy Creek got rewarded for their sensational season by defeating Cartersville 62-51 to win the region championship.
The win is the first region title for Nickerson and he was extremely happy with his team’s performance.
“I am very excited as I told the guys that they weathered the storm,” Nickerson said. “The ship was taking on water and they persevered. I am very happy with their will to fight through adversity.”
After starting the game on a 12-0 run, Sandy Creek found themselves down 24-22 to Cartersville at halftime. They had to battle behind senior forward Jarred Godfrey, who shouldered the scoring load for the Patriots. Godfrey had 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists in the game. He broke out in the third quarter and brought Sandy Creek back with 10 points in the third quarter, including a pair of highlight-worthy plays. He connected on an alley-oop pass from Julian Alexander and he scored a rare four-point play as well.
“I was just trying to make a play and get guys involved,” Godfrey said. “I was also trying to get myself involved too as that is what we needed to win.”
His ability to attack helped create opportunities on the interior. One of the beneficiaries was forward T.J. Bickerstaff. The junior had another double-double with 11 points and 18 rebounds. He also dished out 3 assists on the night.
Bickerstaff took advantage of the attention paid to Godfrey and started to dominate against a weaker Cartersville front. He got several players in foul trouble and forced Cartersville to go to a zone defense.
The defensive change didn’t hinder Sandy Creek as they continued to pound the ball inside. The Patriots took a 45-41 lead into the fourth quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Alexander hit one of the biggest 3-pointers of the night to give the Patriots a 52-47 lead. He finished with 8 points and was a spark plug off the bench.
Cartersville attempted to cut into the deficit late, but it was too late as senior guard Kam Miller hit a key free throw to extend the lead to 56-50. Sandy Creek wouldn’t look back as they went on to win the game.
After the game, Godfrey was proud of his teammates. He said that it was a late second quarter timeout that turned the game around for the team.
“I told them to stay poised as basketball is a game of runs,” Godfrey said. “They were going to make their run and I told the team to stay come and poised. I knew that we would be able to bounce back.”
Nickerson agreed and he was proud that Godfrey relayed the same message on the court.
“I told them the game is there for the taking,” Nickerson said. “I told them that we needed to continue to get stops and do the things we preach defensively. The points were going to come as the shots start falling.”
The Patriots did just that and are now ready to for the next phase of the state playoffs. Godfrey believes the team will be prepared for whatever happens.
“It feels great and it is a feeling that I hadn’t felt before personally,” Godfrey said. “I am ready to go get the state championship now. I am happy, but it is not the one I want. I want the state title.”
Sandy Creek will be at home to face Ridgeland on Saturday. They are a number one seed on their side of the bracket and hope to continue the momentum as long as possible.
Moments before their region championship tipped off, a game that the Lady Patriots would win 44-38 over LaGrange on their home court, Sandy Creek head coach Janie Hodges was emotional as she met with her team one last time. She didn’t meet to discuss x’s and o’s, instead, Hodges just wanted to let the Lady Patriots know how proud she was to be their coach.
“I was telling them before we came out that I always thought we could be here,” Hodges said. “To finally be here with eight players, after the struggles we had in the season, is just amazing.”
It has been a long road for the Lady Patriots to get back to the region championship game. After winning the title last season, the team had lost several players to graduation. It left the Patriots with only eight players and placed doubts in many people that they wouldn’t be successful this season.
For a minute, it almost looked like the doubters were right. Sandy Creek was sluggish early in the season and struggled to find a team identity. Players didn’t have a defined role and the Patriots started 4-6 prior to conference play.
However, something clicked midway through the loss to Cedartown on January 13. The team only lost by six points, and they started to play together as a unit. From there, the Patriots got hot and strung together nine wins in their last 10 games.
The hot streak propelled them to second place in the region and set the rematch between LaGrange in the championship game.
On Saturday night, the Patriots didn’t make the same mistake as they beat LaGrange 44-38 and culminated their journey with another region crown.
“It feels amazing as we won it back-to-back,” Patriots forward Paris Thompson said. “This season we had eight people and of course, people counted us out, but I believed in my coaches and my teammates and we are the region champs.”
Thompson led the way for the Patriots against LaGrange with 12 points and was the main scoring option down the stretch. She scored seven points after halftime to keep Sandy Creek in the game.
Her biggest contribution came on hustle plays as she hit the floor for loose balls and second-chance buckets. On one possession, Thompson grabbed a 50-50 ball and fought through contact to score a layup over two defenders.
The effort spread to her teammates as the Patriots fed off her energy. On a night where uber-talented forward Daija Powell struggled from the field, it was the combination of freshmen Jania Hodges and Arielle Belinga that picked up the secondary scoring load.
Both had strong games as Belinga was a force on the interior. She had 9 points and grabbed several offensive rebounds. Hodges had 6 points and was key in slowing down the guard-centric duo of Mo Strozier and Aryan Dozier for LaGrange.
While the LaGrange pair combined for 25 points, the Patriots made it difficult on them all night. They paid attention to details and stayed focused defensively. It was the little things, like Belinga taking a charge, that impressed coach Hodges about her team.
“Everybody had a role and they played it well,” Janie Hodges said. “Sometimes we get into thinking that we got to score a lot of points to have a good game. I think that everyone did the little things and it counted.”
The win gives Sandy Creek a lot of confidence heading into the state playoffs. They know that with a thin roster people will think they are an easy out. They have proven that a little less goes a long way.
“They bought in and realized that it is all eight of us,” Janie Hodges said. “I told them that either win or lose, you have to give it all you got. We came out victorious and I am just excited for them.”
The Patriots will face Gilmer County at home in the first round of the state playoffs. It will be another opportunity to keep the momentum rolling. For Hodges, she is excited for the win and hopes to keep the ball rolling.
“We are going to take it like it is any other game,” Janie Hodges said. “We have to understand that it is win or go home. We are going to put our best foot forward.”
To see more photos from the games, click here.