Basketball teams ring in new season with media day

Basketball teams ring in new season with media day

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Above, Starr’s Mill Lady Panthers coach Shane Ratliff shares a laugh with his players Riley Clark, Dylan Patterson, Alli Jones, and Laurel Parker during media Day. (Staff Photos by Christopher Dunn)
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Below, McIntosh coach Jason Eisele and players Dishon Lowery and Jordan Lyons talk about the pressures of being a championship contender.

In an occasion befitting the hoops talent on the southside, the Second Annual Fayette-Coweta Basketball Media Day celebrated the players and built the buzz for a fun season ahead.
Whitewater, again playing host, was up first. Lady Wildcats coach Rashad Muhyee brought three seniors, Sally Worst, Jordan Barnett, and Olivia Baker to the stage.
With their first-ever Division 1 signee, Jada Coggins, graduated, the team knows they will need to carve their own path. They will be doing it with an exciting batch of young players and the seniors leading the way.
“This might be the most athletic team that Whitewater has ever had. I’m excited about this group,” said Muhyee, noting that the team could start four freshman at times.
“We want to help them understand their roles and tell them to know their strengths but also know what their weaknesses are,” said Worst. “We will show them you have to trust your teammates.”
The crew may be fresh, but that doesn’t mean the Wildcats will lower their expectations.
“The goal was to get to the playoffs four years ago because it had never happened before,” said Muhyee. “We said let’s raise our expectations a little higher than just being in the playoffs.”
The Whitewater boys bring back a wealth of experience to a talented squad. Coach Julius Smith brought Victor Ayuk, Kendall Metoyer, and Ridge Perkins.
Wins didn’t come easily last year, but the heart of that team is back and more confident.
“A lot of times last year, we were all over the place,” said Ayuk. “We have to make sure that we practice hard and not get ahead of ourselves.”
“I like this basketball team. I like their camaraderies,” said Smith. “I haven’t been around a finer group of people.”
The team will build on tough losses to top teams like McIntosh and Carrollton that they took down to the wire.
“We know we can hang with them, we just gave it up late in the game,” said Perkins. “It makes us really want it even more.”
Coming off a state semifinals finish, the Fayette County Lady Tigers have much work to do. Several stars are gone, but the cupboard is far from bare. Coach John Strickland brought along Darryl Langford and Jessica Watkins.
“The expectations are always high, but it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” said Strickland. “We had high expectations to start last year. It didn’t start out looking good, but we ended up going to the state semifinals.”
It will be a younger team that usual with three freshman in the mix, but plenty of talent returns from last year that saw heavy minutes. This squad is not about to be the one that ends the run of success that includes six region titles and a state championship. “Our tradition of excellence will continue,” said Watkins simply.
Playing in one of the state’s toughest regions will ensure the team is ready come playoff time.
“That’s what makes us better. When you come out of this region, you’re tough and battle-tested. Night in and night out you have to play and defend,” said Strickland. “Our goal is to be one of those 32 (in the playoffs). If you’re one of the 32, you have a chance to win a state title. Why play if you’re not trying to win it all?”
Fayette County’s boys are again full of fresh faces, but that doesn’t change their goals. Last season saw a team hit the court with no previous Tiger experience. This crew won’t be much different in that respect, but they have plenty of potential. Coach Andre Flynn brought with him Noah Gurley and Jaylon Cheffin.
“Sixteen years in a row we’ve made the state tournament,” said Flynn. “With hard work and dedication, we’ll continue the tradition we have at Fayette County.”
The players are battling to earn their spots, something that will make the team better.
“I want to see how my team stacks up,” said Flynn. “I like to think we’re very talented, we’ve just got to go out there and focus.”
The players have bought in, Gurley saying that most of the team did not miss a single day of work over the summer.
For years, Fayette has been the lead dog for the county. They won’t let anyone forget they still belong with the best. “There are a lot of doubters,” said Cheffin. “There are a lot of people to prove wrong.”
Sandy Creek’s Lady Patriots are eager to build on last year’s lessons and rack up some wins. Coach Shon Dodson brought with him assistant coach Ashley Lott and player Kasey Toles.
Last season was tough with an extremely young team that had key injuries piled on top. Virtually everyone is back, a year more experienced and ready to build.
“We’re trying to rebuild the program, and we’re trying to establish a system,” said Dodson. “We’re trying to improve daily, weekly, monthly. We’re still young.”
With little set in stone coming into camp, players are battling it out to earn a spot, even for players that have known each other years.
“Once they cross that red line, friendship is out the door,” said Dodson. “It’s a competition.”
One player who won’t be afraid of a fight is Kasey Toles, who Dodson called his hardest worker. After sitting out last year as a transfer, she is eagerly awaiting the first game.
“I’m excited just to get to play this year,” said Toles. “I’m counting down the days.”
On the other end of the Patriot spectrum is the boys team with title aspirations. New coach Anthony McKissic brought Christian Turner and Elias Harden with him.
So much talent is back, it’s hard not to get excited about their prospects.
“We have three goals: win the region, win state, and get a college scholarship,” said Coach McKissic. “Our biggest challenge is coming to work everyday. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. Our goal this year is to get better as a team every game. We’re the only ones that can stop us.”
Turner and Harden are two of the state’s best players, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg for the talented team.
“They’re both great representations of the kind of talent we have at Sandy Creek,” said McKissic. “Just because you can play basketball, doesn’t mean you can play here. It takes a certain type of athlete to play for Sandy Creek.”
After a trip to the Elite Eight, the Patriots stumbled last year and were knocked out in the first round. That won’t happen again.
“I think about that loss everyday,” said Turner, a senior. He won’t go out like that again. “I’m trying to finish out my story.”
The pages are yet to be written, but it should be a good one.
“I think this year is really going to be good for us,” said Harden.
The Starr’s Mill Lady Panthers return a host of girls that are used to winning. Coach Shane Ratliff brought a quartet of senior multi-sport stars in Riley Clark, Dylan Patterson, Alli Jones, and Laurel Parker.
Clark, Patterson, and Parker are soccer stars fresh off a state title and Jones just finished another season as one of the county’s best at volleyball. That versatility is a huge bonus. The team will take advantage of its strengths with a new approach that is more up tempo.
“This crew is heavily athletic, and they’re hard workers on the floor,” said Ratliff. “We had a lot of people play a lot of minutes last year. They should be pretty much varsity-ready. I’m looking forward to what’s to come with this group.”
The veterans will lead the way as they set their sights on another playoff trip.
“My seniors have done a really good job setting goals,” said Ratliff. “They’re getting the underclassmen prepared.”
The Starr’s Mill boys will be playing a new game as well. Coach Brandon Hutchins brought Zach Pina and Jack Van Nimwegen to the table.
Blessed with a number of tall post players in the past, the Panthers will be smaller and more athletic this time around.
“This is probably the youngest team we’ve had. This is probably the smallest team we’ve had,” said Hutchins. “What our guys do is work hard. They work nonstop on the court and in the classroom. It’s a nitty-gritty kind of team.”
Leading the way will be point guard Zach Pina, the reigning county Freshman of the Year. Van Nimwegen and a number of football players will be counted on to make other teams earn every point.
“We’re not going to be the most talented team. I don’t think we ever will be, but what our guys do is they work hard,” said Hutchins.
The McIntosh Lady Chiefs have big shoes to fill, but plenty of girls eager to try them on. Coach David Dowse brought senior Harley Obsitnik and juniors DeLayne Rotolo and Savannah Soles, fitting for a team built around a variety of weapons.
Gone is the prolific Cassidy Williams, but the rest of the team is back, plus Soles who missed last year with an injury.
“Cassidy had the ability to carry us offensively some nights. I don’t know that we have a single player that can do that this year,” said Dowse. “The key is getting multiple girls to step up.”
The girls know what they need to do.
“We can’t have just one person fill those shoes. Everyone has to work together,” said Rotolo. “Our defense is the key. The offense really doesn’t matter without the defense.”
The blueprint for success is already there. The Chiefs stick to their smart, hardworking play.
“We’re very much a system-oriented program. The system doesn’t change, but the roles of the girls on the team do. We have some smart kids that really buy into what we do,” said Dowse. “We preach toughness. We preach competitiveness in everything we do. We preach accountability. When you’re accountable to each other, things have a way of working themselves out.”
The McIntosh boys don’t shy away from sky-high expectations. The Chiefs went 29-1 last year, and everyone is back. Coach Jason Eisele brought two of his core players, Furman commit Jordan Lyons and Wofford commit Dishon Lowery.
“I’m just going to enjoy this year. Win, lose, or draw, I hope these kids have fun,” said Eisele. “I think it’s going to be a fun ride.”
The Chiefs boast what few teams do, a multitude of weapons at every position. It will make them tough to stop again.
“The strength of our team is our balance,” said Eisele. “The core is back, so we can take what we accomplished last year and add new layers.”
The whole state knows what the Chiefs offer and they want to be the ones to beat them. That doesn’t scare McIntosh.
“We’re definitely aiming high this year,” said Eisele. “Our goal was never to go undefeated, we wanted to go 1-0 as many times as possible. We have to focus each night on the opponent in front of us and play up to our ability. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot each and every night. That’s going to make us stronger.”
He summed up their goal well, “We’re not worried about winning every game, we want to win the last game.”
Getting knocked out in the second round of the playoffs after losing their point guard, Will Washington, to injury has the team even hungrier to avenge their lone defeat.
“You could tell it in the first practice,” said Lowery. “We don’t let up.”
“It hurt a lot,” said Lyons, calling the loss “heartbreaking.” “We all came together this summer and said ‘not again.’ This our last year. We have to do it big.”
The basketball regular season is almost here. For Fayette’s teams, opening night can’t come soon enough.

Christopher Dunn

Managing Editor Christopher Dunn has been with the Fayette County News since 2011, in addition to running Fayette Victory magazine. He is a graduate of Fayette County schools, as well as a graduate of Georgia State University with a degree in journalism. Follow him on twitter @fayettesports.