VALDOSTA — Just because the Highland Christian Academy boys basketball team’s season came to a swift close last Thursday, doesn’t mean the season was a total loss.
In fact, the Eagles gained a lot during their 2014-15 campaign.
Despite having a lack of depth all year long, HCA fought through adversity with a core of talented senior leaders and a handful of gritty role players.
"I'll miss them,” HCA coach Joel Stites said of his seniors with exclamation. “They were an outstanding group of Christian young men.”
Senior forward Jaylen Hiller was a flat-out scorer, but also displayed leadership skills, serving as a vocal leader on the court. He averaged 20 points and nine rebounds during the regular season and also eclipsed the 1,000-point scoring mark of his high school career earlier this season and was named to the All-Region team in the process.
Senior guard Wes Robinson, another All-Region player, was also a team leader who will be missed by Stites and the HCA basketball program.
"Wes Robinson didn't get the appreciation he deserved this year," Stites said. "He guarded every teams’ best player and shut them down, and then he ran our offense all year.
“I will miss his leadership greatly. He's a tough guy as he dealt with health issues the last month of the season.”
With a chunk of HCA’s seniors departing, the team will look to reload for next season. Stites hopes to find players that will add to leading scorer Josh Sharper’s 21-point, 10 rebound average.
"We will get back to work soon and hope to add some talent for next year," Stites said. "We will continue to stress teaching the game of fundamental basketball in a Christian environment, using great academics as an allure to those young men who are interested.”
HCA finished the year at 18-11, with seven of the team’s losses coming at the hands of teams ranked in the top eight in the state. The Eagles got an invite to the GISA Region 3-AA tournament, where it finished third. Then, the team made it to the round of 16 portion of the GISA state playoffs, where they fell 56-45 to Robert Toombs Christian Academy in Carrollton.
The Eagles started the game as if they were poised to make a push toward the next round, jumping out to an early 9-0 lead. Reed Thomas hit an early 3-pointer and got an assist from Robinson on a layup.
Toombs responded with a 3-pointer of its own, which marked a weakness of HCA the whole evening.
"We didn't handle their press well at all, despite our preparation for it,” Stites said.
The Eagles struggled with the full-court pressure that led to their fall. Toombs, who had been averaging nearly 80 points a game, was stymied by the Eagles’ defense most of the night. But HCA’s own pressure created many opportunities to get enough easy baskets to tie the game back up at 21-21 at the half.
After some halftime adjustments, HCA came out of the locker room and forged a 7-point lead, with Sharper hitting two foul-line jumpers in its offense and then a 3-pointer. Once again, mistakes took a toll as Toombs climbed back, hitting a pair of 3s of its own.
Hiller responded with a put-back jumper in the lane. The 6-foot-1 senior did well on the boards once again but could not get going offensively. Hiller scored 5 of his 12 points in the fourth quarter, but it proved to be too little, too late for the Eagles.
Toombs took control in a sloppy fourth, where HCA could not get a shot to drop. The Eagles were within 6 points up to the final minute when another steal and a basket with a foul all but sealed the game for Toombs.
HCA was led by Sharper with 16 points.
"I hate it for my kids,” Stites said. “They didn't finish and they paid the price.
"Playing with 7 or 8 guys total this year caught up with us down the stretch. But I am proud of them, as that's not easy."