Football season may still be at the forefront, but basketball grabbed center stage over the weekend. On Sunday, Whitewater High School played host to the first annual Fayette-Coweta Basketball Media Day. The new event is aimed at shining a much deserved spotlight on the area’s top hoop stars.
“Night in night out, I think we get underappreciated for the basketball talent in our area.” With that line, Starr’s Mill boys basketball coach Brandon Hutchins hit the nail on the head. Media day is about getting to know the players (and coaches) that make Fayette County great.
The event brought out the boys and girls teams from each of the Fayette schools, McIntosh, Starr’s Mill, Whitewater, Sandy Creek, and Fayette County, along with three Coweta schools, Newnan, Northgate, and East Coweta. Schools in Atlanta steal all of the publicity, so it was time to get the Fayette teams their due.
Organized by Willie Reese from Sandy Creek and Rashad Muhyee of Whitewater, with help from other coaches, media day should become a yearly tradition to get basketball fans excited for the upcoming season. Each of the five public schools brought their coach and a couple of players to talk about the year ahead and the offseason preparation.
Muhyee and the Whitewater girls kicked off the festivities. He was joined by a pair of four-year starters in Jada Coggins and Rena Jenkins. For the Lady Wildcats, they are lucky to return a number of key contributors.
“We have high expectations for this year,” said Muhyee. “We’ve done a lot of things here as a basketball team that are firsts. We’re looking foward to having a great year.”
The stability the team has had with Muhyee and the core of this team together for three years could be the key to success.
“He pushes us every day in practice. He has high expectations for us,” said Coggins. “It’s exciting knowing he’s behind us no matter what.”
The Whitewater boys have a new head man in Fred West, but they will return some familiar faces. Top recruit Phil Cofer is off to Florida State, but Phil Garner and Garrett Watkins are back to lead the attack.
Coach West has been putting them and the rest of the team through a rigorous offseason to get ready.
“I pushed them as hard as I possibly could,” said West. “We’re not going to be as big. We’re not going to be as athletic, but I always said we weren’t going to lose because we weren’t in shape.”
Garner talked about the change in the scheme with Cofer not in the paint anymore. “Last year, it was get the ball into Phil and let him score,” he said. “We’re running a motion offense. We’ll share the ball and score as a team.”
The Fayette County Lady Tigers followed with coach John Strickland and his players Kayla Smith and Whitney Williams. They return experience from an always competitive team. They’re not about to end the run of winning.
“It’s our expectation,” said Strickland. “You can call it pressure, but it is what it is,” noting that his team had won 20 games or more since his second year at the helm.
Both Smith and Williams are eager to show their teammates what it takes to succeed.
“I can take on a bigger role,” said Smith. “I want to help out my teammates and put them in a situation to get better, and show them hard work and dedication.”
Williams added, “We have to take a bigger responsibility and teach them the way of the program.”
For the boys at Fayette County, it will be a whole new crew playing for coach Andrew Flynn, but that doesn’t change the winning tradition. Flynn’s team will feature new starters at all five spots, including Jamon Bivens and Kenny Lewis.
“We’re looking at a whole new team,” said Flynn. “We’ll have our work cut out for us, but we’ve been working extremely hard preparing ourselves for the upcoming season.”
Bivens and Lewis are eager to help shape the new Tigers.
“It’s our time,” said Bivens. “Every kid dreams of getting to lead his team to victory.”
“I’m excited,” Lewis said. “I just want to play and do what I do.”
The McIntosh Lady Chiefs are eager to get back to work. Assistant coach Carlie Anderson filled in for head coach David Dowse and was joined by Cassidy Williams and Harley Obsitnik.
It’s a young Chief team, but they won’t be scared.
“We’re focusing on being disciplined,” said Anderson. “Hopefully that will carry over to some wins in a tough region.”
Williams, the returning star of the squad, echoed that sentiment. “People will talk about how we’re underdogs,” Williams said. “We’re not the tallest or the most athletic, but we’re definitely going to be the toughest and the most disciplined.”
Obsitnik agreed. “We’re going to outwork all of our opponents,” she said. “It’s all about determination and hard work.”
McIntosh’s boys team has high hopes. Coach Jason Eisele returns three of the county’s best players in Jordan Lyons, Will Washington, and Dishon Lowery, all just juniors.
“We’re looking forward to these guys running the show,” said Eisele. “We’re working right now on gelling as a team and enjoying the process. We’re building that consistency that we need to be successful in the region and beyond.”
The trio will join with Chase Walter and Phillip Vinson to form a starting five aiming for a first region title and more.
“We’re definitely more disciplined and cohesive,” said Lyons. “That will help us take that next leap to get us where we want to go this year.”
“We have two team mottos this year: five as one and make history,” Lowery said. “This year, we’re going to do what we have to do to get it done.”
The Starr’s Mill Lady Panthers have to replace the group that turned them into consistent winners, but they’re confident they won’t miss a beat. Coach Shane Ratliff brought along Alli Jones and Eniyah Willingham, two players he will lean heavily on.
“This is a new team,” said Ratliff. “We have girls that can really play basketball. We’re excited. We’re going to be very fast and very athletic.”
Willingham and Jones are looking forward to putting their own mark on the program.
“(Last year’s team) left a great legacy,” said Willingham. “Now, it’s our chance to change the program.”
“We’re rebuilding with all of these new girls, but I’m excited to see how we play,” said Jones.
The Starr’s Mill boys are in a similar spot with a lot of new faces in their rotation. Coach Brandon Hutchins was flanked by seniors Eric Sutliff and Zach Richards.
“We’re trying to replace seven seniors,” said Hutchins. “We won’t have a lot of game experience, but they’ve been around the program. They were around the team that went to the Sweet Sixteen. They know how to win. They know what is expected of them.”
Sutliff and Richards are ready to play a key role.
“I’m really excited about leaving my mark on the whole program,” said Sutliff. “When the freshmen now are seniors, they can look back and appreciate the leadership.”
“I’m just here to work hard and get us as far as we can go,” Richards said.
The Sandy Creek Lady Patriots will have an all-new look, including the man at the helm. New coach Shon Dodson brought along Brianna Baitey and Quenecia Washington, the only seniors on a team otherwise filled with sophomores.
“We have to get through the stormy phase. We’re building fundamentals,” said Dodson. “We’re trying to build a system that rivals our football team. We’re trying to bring that same mentality.”
Both Washington and Baitey are looking forward to sharing their experience with the rest of the team.
“I want to help them in the paint and help teach fundamentals,” said Washington. “I can be more vocal on the floor.”
“Coming from a team that played for the state title two years ago, I’m excited about teaching them everything that I’ve learned,” Baitey said.
Last but certainly not least was the boys team from Sandy Creek. Led by coach Willie Reese, the Patriots have the talent to make some noise. Christian Turner and Januari Smith will lead the way.
Last year the Patriots made it to the Elite Eight. They hope to make big seasons a regular occurrence.
“The season ended great. These kids totally bought in,” said Reese. “One thing we tried to instill is always play hard and play unselfish. When you start winning like that, it trickles down.”
For Turner and Smith, they want another taste of the playoffs.
“We’ve been working hard to get back to that spot,” said Turner. “We really want the whole state to know it’s not just football here. We showed last year that we can compete for a state championship.”
“After we lost the big game, coach said to us it’s going to be our team,” Smith said. “I’ve got to be a better leader. I have to step up so we can make it farther.”
The basketball season is just around the corner now. After the first ever media day, a lot of hoops fans can’t wait for tip-off.