Clarence Smith and Rashad Lewis can score the basketball. And so far this season, the duo is proving that point.
Smith and Lewis are combining for 62 percent of the points this season for the 10th-ranked Valdosta Wildcats, who enter Saturday’s game against crosstown rival Lowndes with a 15-4 overall record, and a perfect 8-0 record in Region 1-AAAAAA.
“It is a great tool to have,” said head coach Antonio Haynes, the reigning Region 1 Coach of the Year. “Those guys have scored a lot of points for us. They are playing well. But I also say they need to credit the guys around them.”
Whether inside or outside, Smith and Lewis can hurt opponents. With Lewis, a junior, running the point for the Wildcats, he is able to run Haynes’ system and has the ability to distribute the ball to wide-open players like Smith, who rarely misses from outside, or score, which is perfectly OK with him.
“When Clarence is hitting, he is hitting,” Lewis said. “Whoever is hitting, we get them the ball. It is a total team-effort.”
After helping lead the Wildcats to the Region 1-AAAAA championship last season, Smith and Lewis have elevated their games to even higher levels this season, especially in region play.
Through the first 19 games this season, both players are averaging well above their season averages from a year ago. In fact, Lewis leads the Wildcats in scoring this year with 24 points per game, twice the amount he averaged per game last year, aided by a strong 37-point performance against Colquitt County on Tuesday night.
Smith, a senior, who also played safety for the Wildcat football team this season, is averaging 23 points per game, some five points higher than last year.
“When people look up to you, you have to come out and play good every night,” said Smith, who scored a personal season-high 33 points in Valdosta’s 81-79 win over Johnson (Savannah) in December. “If you play good, the team will play good. They just feed off of the energy.”
A major factor in their improved scoring numbers this season is their work ethic, according to Haynes.
“I tell them preparation is the key; it is how you prepare,” Haynes said. “They had a great summer. (Clarence) and Rashad had wonderful summers. We got out and went to Florida, Georgia Tech. I think it was just the culmination of them playing hard this summer and getting a lot of work in and the experience from last year. It is all kicking in together.”
With the play of Smith and Lewis, the Wildcats have quickly re-entered — as if they ever really left — the talk of being a serious contender for the state championship this season.
More importantly, as of right now, the Wildcats are off to one of the best starts to a region schedule in school-history. Through the first eight games, the Wildcats are a perfect 8-0 in region play, something the 2009-10 Final Four team at VHS didn’t accomplish.
“As we get deeper into region, the competition gets tougher and tougher,” Lewis said. “We have Tifton back-to-back; we haven’t played them yet.”
Added Smith: “Tifton has a transfer and they have all the hype going on, and Valdosta is not really known for basketball. So I think people look past us. I think, in the next few years, we will show that we really can play basketball at Valdosta.”
Last year, the Wildcats, then off an appearance in the Final Four, won the region championship, beating Tift County 66-65 in the championship game.
That championship win, and an appearance in the Sweet 16, set the precedent for future Wildcat teams under Haynes.
“Last year was a standard for this year,” Smith said. “Everything we did last year, we want to do this year, but better.”
Better? How much better is the question.
If one were to ask Smith and Lewis, a state championship would be the answer.
“I think we have the right parts,” Smith said. “We play as a team. We don’t have many individuals. We can make it real far this year.”
“Coach always brags about us being blue-collar workers,” Lewis added. “Like Clarence said, we just play as a team and keep our heads on right and show up to work every night, like we have been able to do. I think we can make quite a nice run to the title.”
Along with the scoring ability of Smith and Lewis, a key to the Wildcats’ success this year is their ability to mesh off the court, says Smith.
“Some teams might be fine on the court, but we are good on and off the court,” Smith said. “We hang out, we go to restaurants. We have fun.”
Both players admit that the addition of Haynes has helped the Wildcat program continue to develop. More importantly, Haynes’ addition has also helped with their personal development.
“Coach has done a lot for the team,” Lewis said. “It is just like coach Rufus McDuffie, the previous head coach. Coach Haynes does the same thing, so it was just a transition. Coach Haynes has taught me a lot. Even during the games, he is telling me things and certain situations and what to do here and there.”
Off the court, Smith and Lewis are both top-notch students. Smith currently holds a 3.5 grade-point average, while Lewis is taking an extra academic elective to earn a 3.0 by the end of his junior year.
“I think that is the best feeling ever, for a coach,” Haynes said. “You don’t have to worry about the guys’ grades. Like Clarence, he is a 3.5. It is good to have that security where they can go to college and have a future and maybe get a free degree.”
With the ability to play at a high-level on the court and the ability to get it done off the court, in particular the classroom, both players have positioned themselves to play basketball at the next-level and beyond, which is exactly the goal.
“I just want to continue playing basketball, wherever it takes me,” Lewis said. “My goal is to play basketball at a Division I school and continue my career.”
“I want to play basketball at a Division I level and maybe go to the pros, the NBA, one day,” added Smith.