by Jaylon Thompson, Riley Hicks, & Christopher Dunn
Basketball season is around the corner and county teams are getting ready for an action-packed campaign. On Monday, every Fayette County team took some time out of a busy schedule to sit down at Twisted Taco and chat with the local media. Each school hit a wide range of topics from new coaches to new approaches. We chronicle it all for you below with a preview of each program.
Fayette County Lady Tigers
It’s never easy to replace a quintet of seniors, but that is the situation that awaits Fayette County girls’ basketball coach Jon Strickland. After an Elite Eight appearance and a Region 3-AAAAA championship, the Lady Tigers aim to reload behind senior captain Sidney Sims and a host of talent that is full of potential.
The main concern isn’t whether the Tigers can get back to elite status. Strickland has proven he can coach a team to success. The question is how long will it take for Fayette to gel as a unit.
“It’s going take 10-15 games to see where we are going to be at,” Strickland said. “We are going to see where it goes. We’re going to be base 2-3 zone and run when we can.”
Last season, the Tigers went 22-7 and were undefeated in the region. Sims played a big role on the squad and earned All-County honorable mention for her efforts. As the senior leader, it will be up to her to guide the team back into the winner’s circle.
“We are getting stronger and it’s like building a new team,” Sims said. “We are basically starting over and it is a lot we have to improve on and get better at.”
Sims hit the gym early in the offseason to prepare for the upcoming slate. She has worked on her offense and her ability to lead on and off the court. Sims also maintained her bond with her teammates and looks to junior center Naomi Franco and sophomores Derique Donigan and Ghylissa Knowles to step up this season.
Franco will take on a bigger role in the paint. She already established herself as a force on the glass. Now, she is working to expand her game in the low post. Sims believes the work has paid off in early workouts.
“We are definitely going to feed Franco in the paint and give her the ball to get her more points,” Sims said.
Fayette also returns forward Ruby Truscott, guard Kayla Montgomery, and Chinedu Chinn and Celine Akande among others. Each will have to step up in bigger roles this season with challenging tests against Westlake, Carrollton, Starr’s Mill, Whitewater, and McIntosh on the schedule.
Strickland knows the task won’t be easy. He plans to take every day in stride and follow the same formula that has worked for years.
“We aren’t dodging anyone this year as it will be a pretty tough schedule,” Strickland said.
Fayette County Tigers
The lasting image of Fayette County’s 73-62 loss to Stockbridge still lingers in the mind of senior guard Terrell Bradley. Losing in the first round of the state playoffs is never ideal, but it was the way that the Tigers loss that has bothered him.
Fayette failed to finish and let the game slip away with costly mistakes. After a postseason team meeting, the seniors vowed to not let mistakes control the outcome of their success.
“We were inexperienced then, but we got our key pieces back and are going to come harder this year,” Bradley said. “We have been in the gym every day working, and that loss has motivated us to go deep in the playoffs this year.”
With 13 of 15 players returning from last season’s squad, the Tigers have the most depth in the region. They are loaded with returning seniors Bradley, Ricky Knight, Greg Smith, and Josh Dupree leading the way.
Each player brings in a different skill set. Bradley is an all-around playmaker as he averaged 8.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists last season. Knight lead the team in scoring at 15.2 points per game, and Smith was a defensive force. This season, Dupree will take over the point guard and has taken the next step.
“I have been working on every aspect of my game and trying to improve my scoring,” Knight said. “I am trying to lead this team the best way I can by scoring the ball.”
Head coach Andre Flynn also has junior guard JeKobe Coleman and sophomore Will Richard returning among others. Both played pivotal reserve roles last season as Richard won All-County Freshman of the Year. This season, they are expected to step up in extended minutes and help fuel a prolonged run in the region.
“I think it’s just the maturity and that we played together,” Flynn said. “We played well towards the end of the season and got familiar with each other. Last year, it was the first time some players played varsity basketball. I think we did pretty well, and I am looking for bigger things this year.”
The schedule won’t be easy. The addition of Jonesboro into the region adds another level of competition among the likes of Starr’s Mill and McIntosh. However, Dupree isn’t worried about the other teams. He said the team is focused on themselves. They aim to go undefeated, win the region, and grab the state crown.
“We just got to keep grinding,” Dupree said.
Flynn agrees. He always gets the best out of his team and isn’t listening to the outside noise. His message to the team is to just give it all you got.
“I like us and we have been running for a while,” Flynn said. “I think the guys look forward to a challenge and we will be ready.”
McIntosh Lady Chiefs
A new voice will lead the McIntosh Lady Chiefs as Rick Fontaine takes over head coaching duties this season. Fontaine is no stranger to the hardwood. He has 22 years of coaching experience and has guided winning teams back home in Michigan. His track record includes time spent coaching softball, basketball, and football.
“I am really excited to get back into the program after taking a year off last year,” Fontaine said. “I have a great group of young ladies to work with this season.”
Fontaine takes over for Jessica Carlyle and inherits a McIntosh squad that is full of youth and potential. A lot of players will make their first appearance on varsity and it could create some growing pains early on.
The cupboard isn’t bare as returning seniors Kennedy Miller and Rylee Calhoun make up a veteran backcourt. Both players took big steps last season as they each averaged 14 points per game. The duo has spent the offseason in the gym and worked on different aspects of their game.
“I wanted to show consistency as it is really important,” Calhoun said. “Whenever I work out, I try to make sure I am hitting my shots with the same rhythm and the same motion to make sure I am more accurate.”
Miller agrees. She has focused on improving her offensive efficiency after shooting 34 percent from the field last season.
“I have worked on my jump shot and improved with my 3-point game,” Miller said.
In the frontcourt, McIntosh returns senior center Anna Muh and sophomore forward Madison Howard. Sophomore Claire Lewis also returns with an improved shooting stroke from the outside.
Howard has improved a lot from her freshman season. Muh has seen a completely different player mentally and thinks Howard will be a big asset this year.
“I have seen Madison go from a timid player to now being confident in her abilities,” Muh said. “She is not afraid to battle some of the taller girls in practice. She has definitely improved a lot this year.”
Fontaine believes the team will make noise in the region. He is excited to see how some talented freshmen incorporate with the group as well.
“We got a good group of seniors that have taken them under their wing,” Fontaine said.
Look for McIntosh to take on a defensive mentality under Fontaine. He aims to limit opponents to one shot per possession and pay attention to the details. This includes always boxing out and creating turnovers. On offense, Fontaine hopes to run and space the floor.
“I think that if we can pressure the ball a lot and get the game up-tempo, we may have the advantage over some larger teams,” Calhoun said.
The schedule lends opportunities for McIntosh to reach the playoffs again. Last season, they reached the first round as the fourth seed. They have a shot against the likes of Starr’s Mill, Whitewater, Griffin, and Fayette County.
“We want to control the things we can control,” Fontaine said. “That is playing defense and working hard. Once you make teams uncomfortable, it leads to success.”
The McIntosh Chiefs are changing it up this season. After graduating a talented senior class, head coach Jason Eisele is tweaking his offensive style to fit the players in the building.
Look for the Chiefs to play a lot faster in space behind returning seniors Naj Ashley-Emory and Bruce Carpenter. Both wings rely on athleticism and create offense with a downhill attacking style. Last season, Ashley-Emory led the team with 11.3 points per game. Carpenter logged 10.9 points and collected 4.6 rebounds.
Eisele wants to capitalize on their scoring acumen and create more possessions. At times, the Chiefs struggled to play with tempo last season. He believes the Chiefs will be stronger with better leadership and cohesiveness.
“We have a lot of guys that are skilled with the ball in their hands,” Eisele said. “We are definitely going to play a different style than we did last year. I am a big believer in fitting what you got.”
Eisele will turn the starting point guard duties over to junior Camerin Lyons. He will conduct the offense as the floor general and look to get the team in offensive sets. Also returning are Alex Stroman, Keenan Brown, and Andrew Pinckney among others. There also could be a couple freshmen that mix into the rotation.
“It’s tough to lose those seniors, but I think we are going to be better this year,” Eisele said. “These guys have grown as basketball players and leaders.”
In the offseason, several players worked on their game. Lyons focused on learning the offense and getting players in the right spots. Carpenter worked on being a better shooter to take advantage of matchups.
“I tried to get in the gym at least every day and try to get better,” Carpenter said. “I put up at least 300 to 400 shots a week to get better and find a rhythm when the games starts. Hopefully, all that hard work will pay off.”
Ashley-Emory worked on similar skills. He has extended his range and worked be more consistent.
“I am focusing more on getting to the basket instead of settling for the 3-pointer or the mid-range pull up,” Ashley-Emory said. “I am mostly trying to take less shots and getting more out of them to be more efficient.”
The schedule doesn’t offer any favors. The region is loaded with strong teams including Jonesboro, Fayette County, Starr’s Mill, and Griffin. After winning 18 games and finishing second in the region, Eisele is hoping to take the throne this year. He just might have the squad to get it done.
“I think that failure and missing out still stings and hurts,” Eisele said. “It is a motivating factor and has led to the hard work we have done this summer. I hope we can keep that same energy all throughout the season.”
Sandy Creek Lady Patriots
The Lady Patriots have set a high bar for themselves, and they’ve got the tools to exceed all expectations.
Represented by head coach Janie Hodges and players Jania Hodges, Daija Powell, and Paris Thompson, the team has championship dreams.
“This is the year to do it,” said Hodges of her team with a solid makeup of veterans and young talent. “This will be one of the better years to make that race to the ring, and we have the ability to do it.”
The biggest obstacle will again be overcoming a lack of depth. Last year, they kept just eight players on the varsity roster with an even smaller rotation. Hodges expects similar numbers this year.
“We’ll roll with whatever we have,” she said. “We’re not so much worried about numbers, we’re worried about staying healthy.”
Coming off a 19-win season with a region championship and a narrow loss in the second round of the playoffs, the Patriots return every player, each with a wealth of on-court experience and a hunger for a deep playoff run. Hodges has seem the team grow closer together and thinks their chemistry will give them an edge.
“I think they’re playing with a chip on their shoulder, so let’s see how that pans out.”
Thompson knows that last year’s learning moments will make them better.
“The best thing we can take from the experience is knowing we can compete with any team.”
Powell is on the same page.
“We’re better than we believe we are, and we can make it further this year.”
The players know what they have to do to succeed, and Jania Hodges sums it up well.
“We have to play as a team, and if we play as a team, we can beat anybody on the floor.”
Sandy Creek Patriots
Sandy Creek head coach Jon-Michael Nickerson still replays the Patriots Final Four loss to Upson-Lee in his mind. Several things jump out from the game, including costly mistakes to missed opportunities.
Everything has boiled down to getting tougher mentally and physically. The message has reverberated in the locker room as the Patriots have attacked the offseason. Practices have hit another level, and the team has developed together. As a result, Nickerson thinks the team might be better than last season’s squad.
Leading the 2018 Patriots is senior forward T.J. Bickerstaff. The talented upperclassman takes over as the captain and the go-to option on the floor. Last season, he averaged 15.5 points and 9 rebounds per game. He expects to become a triple threat and average double-figures during the campaign.
“I am feeling good and I put in all the work,” Bickerstaff said. “I am ready for a good year with the team.”
Bickerstaff will have several running mates, including sophomore sensation Jabari Smith, senior Julian Alexander, senior Shawn Hobson, and junior Matt Williams. The Patriots also added two transfers in junior Keith Williams II and senior Greg Jones.
Williams comes in from Newnan High School where he averaged 16 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists last season. He is expected to add a scoring punch that departed from Jarred Godfrey’s graduation. Jones adds more length to the front line and will fill a role defensively.
The one question mark for the Patriots will be at point guard. It is never easy to replace a defensive stalwart in Kameron Miller. Nickerson hopes to use different ball handlers to keep the offense flowing.
“I don’t have a natural point guard as it will be point by committee,” Nickerson said.
With so much talent, the Patriots have gotten noticed by several colleges. The added exposure hasn’t startled the team. They are focused on getting to the state playoffs and winning a championship. They vow that a tough loss, like the Upson-Lee defeat, won’t occur twice.
“We have been in the weight room a lot and therefore that won’t happen again,” Alexander said. “We are going to use the same game plan with different players.”
The upcoming schedule is vastly improved and it won’t be easy sledding. The Patriots have to contend with Cartersville, LaGrange, Troup County, and non-region foe Fayette County. Nickerson will ask a lot out of his squad to compete. He says it comes down to how everyone reacts to the calls made on the floor. For that, he is relying on Bickerstaff as more to be a leader on and off the court.
“The one thing we are working on is him communicating the entire time he is on the floor,” Nickerson said. “He always has to be mentally locked in and that is tough for a young kid. We got to make sure that everyone is focused on what he is telling them to do on the floor.”
Look for Sandy Creek to be the favorites again. This time, they will make sure to finish what they started last season.
“That has been our whole motto and motivation this whole summer and that is to get tougher,” Alexander said.
Starr’s Mill Lady Panthers
The Lady Panthers were just one win from claiming the region title from Fayette, and their run in the playoffs ended after just one game. With that in the back of their minds, look for the Panthers to be right there when it comes to capturing the region this year with quite a few players coming back.
Alice Anne Hudson and three-point sensation Ashtyn Lally return this season as the top scorers. The player stepping into the leadership role this season will be senior Alyssa Angelo, who hopes her style of play makes an impact on the younger girls.
“I just think it sets a standard on where our effort should be, and people pick up on that,” Angelo said.
In terms of offense, the Panthers will keep a fast pace style of going quick to the hole. The biggest spot that the Panthers will need to replace is at the center position after losing Ali Rumpel, but the team believes the upcoming freshman should be capable of filling that void.
With the number of returning players and most being top scorers from last season, the Panthers start 2018 as one of the favorite the capture the region.
Starr’s Mill Panthers
When the Starr’s Mill Panther boys walk onto the court for the first time this season, they will have a new coach at the helm Charlemagne Gibbons, who previously coached at Florida Atlantic.
After claiming the region title and making a run to the elite eight in the playoffs last year, the Panthers decided to part ways with coach Brandon Hutchins and go in a different direction with Gibbons.
“We are going to be a faster pace offense,” Gibbons said. “We’ve got high skill guys that just needed to build their confidence, and hopefully myself and our coaching staff has done that for these guys during summer workouts.”
Losing County Player of the Year Drew Hudson, the pressure is now on Julian Lynch to take his place and emerge as one of the top scorers in 2018.
“I don’t really think there is any pressure,” said Lynch. “I still have all my teammates, and this is a team sport. I am looking forward to what we are going to do this year.”
Transfer guard Jamaine Mann joins the team from Eagles Landing Christian Academy and is expected to add a scoring punch alongside Lynch and fellow senior Nate Allison.
“Adding [Jamaine’s] diversity with these two other guys diversity gives us a really good group,” Gibbons said.
Heading into a stout region once again, Gibbons wants to make sure his team does not get overwhelmed at the beginning and focus more on what could be waiting them at the end of the season.
“I just challenge these guys to play every night the same way and don’t be inconsistent with your approach.”
If Starr’s Mill can stay healthy look for them to possibly claim back-to-back region titles and make another run in the playoffs.
Whitewater Lady Wildcats
The Lady Wildcats just narrowly missed the playoffs last season, but with the amount of talent that this returning this fall the Cats are looking to gain much more than a playoff appearance.
“My starting five is not my worry,” head coach Rashad Muhyee said. “It is who is coming off the bench and who can contribute off the beach.”
Whitewater believes it has found the players to fill that void with Sole Chinnery, Ally Watson, and Carissa Griffin. In terms of the Wildcats starting five, the team will rely heavily on returning senior Jada Claude at forward.
“We play matchup games with her,” said Muhyee. “She has been really working on her outside game. If you’re her size, we let her go on the wing, and if you’re smaller than her we take it out.”
The Wildcats will also look for point guard Courtney Smith to make an impact and work with Claude in getting the ball to the hole. With a tough region schedule ahead of them, Claude believes the only way to make it to the playoff is if they play better as a team.
“This year is really going to be focusing on not what we did wrong, but how we can come together more as a team,” Claude said. “I just want to show the underclassmen how to keep the legacy at Whitewater and make sure we get to state.”
The Whitewater boys will be going in a different direction this season under new head coach Matt Martin, who was an assistant on the staff last year. The Wildcats have been unable to make the playoffs the past few years and are looking to turn the tide in 2018.
“We had a really good summer and played over 30 games,” Martin said. “I think our summer progress was huge for us in our development.”
The guys leading the way and carrying much of the load for the Wildcats are seniors K’won Bush and Copeland Jackson, who were big playmakers for the team last season.
“With those guys developing in the offseason, it is going to be very important for our team,” Martin said. “Those two have been the anchors for our guards the last couple years, and to have them have successes is my biggest focus.”
The Cats will again employ a fast-paced attack, and the most important area that Martin wants to fix is free throw shooting. In previous seasons, Jackson was the main scorer for the team, but he believes for the Wildcats to be successful he must find more ways to get the rest of the team involved, which has helped mold him into the leader for the Cats.
Jackson knows at times during the game he will have to be the bad guy and tell his teammates what they are doing wrong, but to survive their region and make the playoffs, the Wildcats will need to play each game with minimal mistakes.
Our Lady of Mercy Lady Bobcats
It’s a whole new world for the Lady Bobcats. Superstar Morgan Jones is graduated and playing at Florida State, and this year’s squad is eager to establish their own identity.
Jones accounted for most of the team’s production en route to a 20-win season and a berth in the Sweet Sixteen, and the current crew isn’t ready to let the region forget they can be a force.
We’ve got a lot of new, upcoming players, so we’re relying on our seniors and veteran leadership,” said new coach Andre White.
Jade Evertsz and Nikera Maddox are ready to take the lead.
“Morgan was a very vital part of our team, all the seniors were, but we’re really ready to step up more,” said Evertsz. “It’s a matter of working as a team and building a new bond.”
Maddox, a four-year member of the team, lauded the lessons taught to her by veterans, and she’s eager to share them.
“Confidence is the biggest thing,” she said. “Don’t be scared to take the ball to the hoop. If you’re scared, you’re not going to do what you need to do to help the team.”
The Lady Bobcats won’t be scared to make some noise.
Our Lady of Mercy Bobcats
The world is sleeping on the Our Lady of Mercy Bobcats, and they don’t mind.
Under second year coach Najgee Gatson, and coming off a 5-20 season with nowhere to go but up, the Bobcats are ready to battle with their brothers in the trenches.
“It’s about understanding we’re all we’ve got. You’ve got to stick together,” said Gatson, who has been encourage by the buy-in from his players. “They’re learning to believe in one another. (Last season) made these guys band closer together.”
The Bobcats won’t shy away from the work of turning the team into a winner in their second year under Gatson said senior Jason Moran.
“His expectations for us are higher, but we’re ready to work hard,” said Moran. “I’m ready to make sure everybody has bought in and everybody is ready to win.”
Jalen Dincol knows the key will be building on the momentum of late-season progress.
“Last year we realized too late the potential we had and started to pick it up,” Dincol said. “This year, we look to carry it forward.”
The Bobcats are all in and ready to claw out some wins.