The Valdosta Daily Times
The start of high school basketball season is almost here, and Valdosta High’s teams are looking forward to getting back on the court.
The Wildcats and the Lady Wildcats take the court for the first time on Saturday, when they host Brooks County in a preseason scrimmage. The girls game starts at 6 p.m., with the boys’ game to follow afterwards.
“I’m very excited to get started,” Valdosta boys head coach Antonio Haynes said. “I look forward to another wonderful year, and trying to get the most out of kids.”
Last season, the Wildcats won the region championship in Haynes’ first season as their head coach. They went 23-6 and made it to the second round of the state playoffs.
But as Haynes points out, that was last year. Now he’s focused on this year.
“I try to emphasize that every day at practice. That was last year. It’s over with,” Haynes said. “We’re trying to get the most out of the guys, and just let them know it’s a new year. What happened last year is over with.”
Valdosta lost some key players from last year, including guards Norman Taylor, Dominique Rickman, Norman Taylor and forwards Willie Barrett and Avery Wells.
“The team is young. We lost a lot,” Haynes said. “We lost five (players) that we called starters. We lost eight seniors in all. We’re young, but we’re working extremely hard. My goal is always to be very competitive, and I can say that we’ll be competitive. I can’t say how good we’ll be, but we will be competitive.”
The Wildcats also have some key players back.
“Rashad Lewis is back, Clarence Smith is back (after football season ends), Keyonte Scruggs is back,” Haynes said. “Colin Kirkpatrick is back, (and) Pierce Wallace. We have some guys that were here last year that will step up and play a lot this year (and) help us out.”
Haynes emphasizes playing team basketball. The Wildcats don’t have a true star, but they do have a bunch of players who play well in their coach’s system (a system Haynes learned under his predecessor and mentor, Rufus McDuffie, while helping Mitchell-Baker win three state championships).
Haynes says that Region 1-6A will be very tough this season, with no easy victories.
“My focus right now is to make our guys understand that this is a tough region. There’s going to be no nights off. No matter where you go, you have to play,” Haynes said. “Lowndes is tough. They’re going to be scrappy. Coffee played a scrimmage game the other night and scored 99 points. They look really, really good. Camden and Brunswick are coming into the region; those are two really good teams. Moultrie is scrappy. And then you have Tifton up the road.
“Everybody’s talking about Tift County, and they’re really good. They’re well coached — Coach (Eric) Holland does a good job — and they had Brandon Green transfer in from Mary Persons. He’s the No. 1 player in the state of Georgia. Of course, they still have Tadric (Jackson) and Donnell Tuff. So they’re loaded.”
But a region championship is still one of the Wildcats’ goals. So is a state championship.
“The goal is always the same,” Haynes said. “Whenever you coach, the goal is the same. The goal is to win the state championship. I think when it gets to the point where your goal is not to win the state championship, I think something is wrong. That should be your goal. You set the bar high, you set the expectation really, really high, and we do. ... Winning a region championship is a goal. It’s a tough goal, with so many great teams in the region. But it is a goal. The kids need to know that’s our goal, and they need to come in and work every day like they want to win the region championship.”
Valdosta’s girls head coach is optimistic heading into this season.
“I think we’re going to be OK this season,” Lady Wildcats head coach E.A. Wilcox said. “I think we’ll be very competitive this year. ... I think if we’ll work hard and continue to improve, like I’m thinking we will, (we’ll be good).”
Last year, the Lady Wildcats went 19-7 and finished second in the region. Like the boys team, they made it to the second round of the state playoffs.
Sierra Foster and LaPorchia Bridges, who were two of the Lady Wildcats’ top scorers and rebounders last season, have graduated. But some of last year’s top players are back this year, including guard Stormm Phillips, a fourth-year starter. Phillips is only 21 points away from the 1,000-point milestone.
“I’ve got a lot of returning players coming back this year,” Wilcox said. “I think we’re good overall. ... I’ve got some seniors (with) some experience on the court. They’ve got some experience as far as knowing plays (and understanding our system). We’ve got Kaneshia Kimbrough, Taylor Hauser and Terri Oglesby; those are girls that didn’t see a lot of playing time last year, but they’re older girls. I’ve got three or four returning starters — Tiaera Phillips, Stormm Phillips, Destiny (Covert) and Shanieka Smith.
“The (season) looks pretty bright for us this year, and I’m looking forward to the season. I’m excited about the season.”
Wilcox admits he does hope that his team doesn’t have as many close losses this year. The Lady Wildcats only lost seven games last year, but six of those losses were by seven points or less, including a 50-48 loss to crosstown rival Lowndes in the region championship game.
Wilcox believes the new Region 1-6A will be strong from top to bottom.
“The region is much tougher this year,” Wilcox said. “Lowndes still has Tasia (Brown), they’ve got little speedy guards that were on JV last year, they still have Coretta (Haddin) in the post. They’ve got a few girls off JV that were pretty tough. Camden is speedy, and well coached. Brunswick’s the same way; they have a girl (Destiny Alston) that averaged near (20 points per game) last year. She gets a lot of buckets. They’re a defensive-minded team at Brunswick. The (Region) Player of the Year comes back from Colquitt (Makeba Ponder). They’ve got the little left-handed point guard and (Natalie Griffin) down low. (Colquitt’s) got a tough team. I saw Tifton play last Tuesday, and they looked good. (Tift has) a real good nucleus coming back, with some additions. Coffee’s got a brand new team full of girls I’ve never seen before, and they are very good.”