By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
Here are some final thoughts on the 2011-2012 Class A basketball season.
Congratulations to the champs. Wesleyan fell to St. Francis in the region championship game. Whitefield Academy almost suffered a mid-season loss to … Hapeville Charter? But in the end there was justice as the two best teams in Class A took home the titles. Once again Wesleyan’s Jan Azar and Whitefield Academy’s Tyrone Johnson proved to be among the best coaches and program builders in the state.
Yes, they coach at private schools – which by their very definition means the schools have to recruit student athletes. However, the vast majority of Azar’s players come to the school in middle school or even earlier, where they learn how to play the “Wesleyan Way.” Johnson does get some key transfers to Whitefield, though not as many as some opine and they usually come in as freshmen or sophomores. Still, he helps them develop and builds team chemistry. Having great players is nice, but getting them to play well together is not always as easy as it looks.
Other great coaching jobs. To hopefully head off any private school bashing here, there were great coaching jobs performed by those at public schools as well. Turner County’s Tyrone Kellogg found a way to keep his Rebels in the semi final contest against Athens Christian, even though his best players – seniors Zuriel Muhammad and North Florida signee Demarcus Daniels – spent most of the game on the bench in foul trouble. Though he didn’t win a title, this may have been on of Aaron Jeter Jr.’s best coaching performance, leading Wilkinson County to the quarterfinals with a very inexperienced roster, as only two players on this year’s team logged significant minutes during last season’s title run. Matt Troutman continues to do an outstanding job leading the Taylor County girls’ program, which has failed to make the state playoffs just four times since 1983. Down at tiny Pelham, Antonia Tookes has somehow made the Hornets one of the top programs in Class A in just two seasons.
Whitefield’s Tyrone Johnson. Speaking of Johnson, he had some interesting things to say after his Wolfpack won the school’s third state title. First he had this to say about one of the state’s top players, Georgia-bound Kenneth Gaines: “When we got him as a sophomore, he was athletic but he really didn’t know much about basketball. He was getting noticed by all these [colleges] and he didn’t even know what conference they were in or what the conferences were. He’s just grown so much in three years. I’m so proud of him and how he’s developed.”
On next season’s public-private school split in the playoffs: “I know this isn’t the politically correct thing to say, but I want to say it anyway. I think it’s an absolute travesty that public and private schools will not compete against each other. I absolutely like having the opportunity to knock out the top programs like a Wilkinson County or Wilcox County or Turner County, or having them knock me out. I would welcome the opportunity to play a plus-one type championship game against the public school champion. Absolutely.”
Need a point guard? Hopefully some schools somewhere will give two of the state’s best point guards a chance to play on the next level. Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy’s Brandi Wilkey (5-foot-4) and Turner County’s Muhammad (5-foot-7) are being overlooked by college recruiters presently, largely because of their height – or lack thereof. Their coaches, Kellogg at Turner and SACA’s Jackie Cowan, who did an outstanding job leading the Warriors to the title game with a great lack of depth on her roster, both say they hope to find a fit for each. Wilkey and Muhammad are similar in that they do not do any one thing exceptionally well, except control tempo and lead their teams, the greatest attribute for a point guard.
Watch South Florida’s women next season. The Bulls finished 17-14 and will play in the WNIT. But look for them to make the real big dance next season when they will add two of Georgia’s best guards to their roster – Courtney Williams of Charlton County and Shavontae Naylor of SACA. Williams is perhaps the state’s best player that no one saw, playing down in Folkston, while Naylor was largely overshadowed by all of the great players in metro Atlanta. It would be great to see them help make South Florida a Big East contender.
Teams to watch next season. Wilkinson County’s boys will be a much more experienced group next season, having advanced to the Elite Eight with a roster of mostly juniors and sophomores. Aquinas will be strong as well behind Ahmad Hill and Micheal Scott, both sophomores, and watch out for the previously mentioned Hapeville Charter squad, which will return every player next season. Also, in Athens, it should be fun to watch the budding rivalry between two of the state’s top freshmen — Athens Christian’s Will Jackson and Athens Academy’s Eric Williams. Jackson has bragging rights so far as the Eagles swept the Spartans (78-37 and 51-41) and went on to advance to the state finals. Darlington’s girls will lose perhaps the program’s best player ever, Lindsay Evans, but everyone else, including junior center Terar Stewart, will return to a team that went 27-4 before losing in the Elite Eight to Wesleyan. St. Francis, SACA and Taylor County will be good again as well.