Bulldogs keep aim on championship

Tyrin Lawrence takes a shot during a portion of last week’s Morgan County basketball fan showcase event.  

PHOTO: Justin Hubbard

By Justin Hubbard

justin@lakeoconeenews.us

 

Earlier this year, on March 9, Morgan County boys basketball coach Jamond Sims saw disappointment on the faces of all his players.

The Bulldogs played Pace Academy for the Class AAA state title at the University of Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum. Despite Morgan’s best efforts, Pace won the game, 54-46, and claimed the title. The loss ruined the Bulldogs’ chance to win two-straight championships in four consecutive trips to the title game.

On that day, the Bulldogs were beaten. But they were not broken.

Speaking at last Saturday’s Region 8-AAA basketball media day at East Jackson High School, Sims said it didn’t take long for his players to move past the loss and return to the grind.

“I want to say that following week they were in the gym ready to go,” Sims said. “It was eerily similar to when we lost [the championship game] in 2015. Those guys came back that following Monday ready to play and the carryover and the mindset was, 'We've got to finish it.' They finished it that following year. This group is pretty much similar, especially with the talent returning and the experience level. I think that they're ready to try to make a run for it.”

This year’s returning players includes the likes of juniors Alec Woodard, Stevin Greene and Tyrin Lawrence, who all represented the Morgan boys team at media day.

The trio spoke about different goals, such as winning the region and returning to the state tournament. Each of the players wants to improve his own individual game, too.

But as far as the prospects of avenging last year’s championship game loss go, the three players are “hungry” and ready to lead the Bulldogs back to the promised land.

“We want to get back to where we left off,” Woodard said.

Sims said he knows most people throughout the area expect Morgan to contend for the championship. He tries to keep his players’ heads down, though, and make sure they know it won’t come easy.

“Unfortunately, that is the pressure and expectation,” Sims said. “We try to tell the kids to take it game by game but the expectations of the community and other people that are on the outside looking in is you've got guys that are returning, two guys that are supposedly the better ones in the state and one that's probably one of the most under-appreciated ones in the state, so they expect us to be in the same spot.”

Morgan’s path back to the state tournament began last week, which was the first week GHSA teams were allowed to hold practices. The three Bulldogs at media day said they’ve already seen some improvement across the team.

“It's going pretty good so far,” Lawrence said. “We're just trying to improve day by day during practice.”

The three players representing Morgan at media day have each established some personal goals in addition to the team’s overall expectations.  

Greene said he wants to be a more consistent shooter. Woodard said he wants to be more aggressive on the offensive side of things. Lawrence, much to the amusement of his teammates, said he wants to refine his defensive skills “because they said I couldn't play defense.”

If the Bulldogs want to be successful, they will need big performances out of those three, particularly Woodard and Lawrence. The two of them took the region by storm last year, providing Morgan with consistent offensive weapons.

Woodard scored 92 points during last year’s state tournament, good for an average of 18.4 points per game. Lawrence was a threat all around the floor; he could dunk as easily as he could knock down a mid-range jumper.

Sims said it is imperative those two take on a bigger role this season and sometimes put aside their naturally unselfish attitudes.

“Alec, for the most part, at times he has to be more aggressive offensively,” Sims said. “We know he can shoot it and we know he can handle it. He can do just about anything with the ball. Now, he has to pick and choose his spots when he's gonna turn it on and say, 'OK, my team's not necessarily in a groove so let me pick it up a little bit and start looking for my shot more.' And Tyrin is pretty much the same way. He is as athletically gifted and offensively gifted as a lot of players I've coached in my lifetime. If you talk to them, personality-wise, they're really laid-back guys and they like to think of others before they think of themselves.”

The Bulldogs could be at a disadvantage when they open the season Nov. 18 at the Craig Sager Memorial Tournament in Atlanta.  

A few of their key players, including Anthony Cooper, Jordan Huff and Quin Williams, also play football. The football team opens the state playoffs this Friday in Madison; if the Bulldogs happen to advance to the state title game, then those three players will be unavailable to the basketball team until mid-December.

Regardless, Sims said there will be no canceled games during the early portion of the season.

“We'll play with what we've got,” he said. “If we've got five or six varsity guys, that'll be what we roll with and add some younger JV (players) in and that'll give them the opportunity to start building for the future and getting their minds ready for when it's their turn to be in these guys' shoes.”

Through one week of practice, the Bulldogs’ primary focus has been on conditioning and finding fill-ins for the football players. They’ve got to replace a few seniors, too.

Josiah Mitchell, Jermaine Alexander and Damarian Thomas graduated last year. Sims said replacing them will be tough, especially Mitchell because he was the team’s point guard. Senior Yusuf Baig will take over Mitchell’s duties and Cooper will be a starter once he returns from football.

The Bulldogs’ operations will look nearly the same as they have in years past. Sims said there’s no reason to make unnecessary major changes.

After all, the team hasn’t lost a region game since Dec. 6, 2013, and none of the current Bulldogs know what it’s like to not play for a state championship.

 “We will have a couple of tweaks and changes, but, for the most part, the system will pretty much remain in place,” Sims said. “We try to hang our hats on, 'if it's not broke, don't fix it.'”

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