LOA basketball sends off first seniors with wins

Sophomore Devin Phenix greets senior K.J. Harris with a hug at the entrance of the Titans’ locker room following the conclusion of Saturday’s game.

PHOTO: Justin Hubbard

By Justin Hubbard

justin@lakeoconeenews.us

 

It was tough to hear the final buzzer of last Saturday’s Lake Oconee Academy boys basketball game against Glascock County.

That’s because the Titans held a 2-point lead when it went off and the LOA faithful went nuts when the team prevented Glascock from taking a realistic shot for the last-second win on senior night.

Senior guard K.J. Harris squatted near midcourt as a Glascock player heaved a desperation shot and missed. Harris was soon mobbed and surrounded by his teammates and other LOA students who rushed the court. LOA dropped a 69-57 game to Glascock at the end of last season. Harris said avenging that loss and closing out the season on a high note prompted the massive release of emotion after the game.

“It felt pretty good,” Harris said regarding the postgame celebration. “Knowing we lost to this team at the end of last year, it just left a sour taste in our mouths. We knew that we had to come out and we had to compete and we had to win. It was kind of like exorcising your demons.”

The demons haunted the Titans the last two seasons, which were the school’s first with varsity-level athletics. Wins were scarce – the Titans only won three times.

Several of the Titans played together prior to the installment of the varsity team. Senior John Fowler was one of them.

Fowler said the emotional scene following Saturday’s game was hard-earned given the tough road the Titans traveled the last few years.

“It was unbelievable,” Fowler said. “Over the past four years, we've worked so hard and we deserve it. That sounds selfish. We all deserve it, though.”

The Titans’ struggles didn’t stop them from trying, and there were times this season where they could have won a handful of other games. Their head coach, Michael Brooker, said he is excited to be part of the establishment of the program even if the first couple of season were rocky.

“It's been really neat,” Brooker said. “It's a unique challenge, it's a unique opportunity and I was excited about it from the very beginning and I'm still excited about it. There's a lot of potential here, I believe, and we've just got to be patient and continue to build it the right way and continue to work. ... It may take a little while, but I think we're going to get there.”

Brooker isn’t the only one who thinks the LOA boys team is headed up. Harris and Fowler both touted the team’s returning players, including the likes of sophomores Devin Phenix, Jackson Cown and Ryan Smith, who each noticeably improved their game this year, and junior Bryson Jackson.

Clayton Hinspeter said that returning talent plus the pipeline of players following them means LOA is headed toward a bright future long after he, Harris, Fowler and the other seniors – Kunj Sukha, Manny Mills and Hunter Lovelace – are gone.

“That sophomore crew and Bryson, the big man, he's still here, them and especially the people after them will be an incredible team to watch,” Hinspeter said. “It's gonna be a blessing to watch LOA to go from a brand-new, younger-than-10-years-old program with half a gym be a basketball super power. You mark my words: Within 20 years, we're gonna get a championship.”

The Lady Titans were fortunate to enjoy a little more success during their first two years of varsity competition.

This season, LOA’s girls won 11 games. They also had playoff hopes, albeit slim, as of this week. LOA’s girls will learn their postseason fate after region tournaments.

Regardless of what happens in the postseason, the Lady Titans capped off their regular season games with two big victories. It started with last Friday’s 45-44 win at Greene County.

Sophomore Kirstin Reece nailed a 3-pointer with 6.4 seconds remaining to give the Lady Titans the decisive advantage. Senior Meredith Grill was on the floor during that play and passed Reece the ball to set up the game-winner.

Grill said her team’s win over the in-county foe was her favorite moment from the last two years.

“I have to say it was the Greene County game,” Grill said. “Beating Greene County was definitely one of our highlights of the season. … I knew we had it in the bag (after Reece’s shot). A rush of energy went through me and that was the best feeling in the world.”

The next night, LOA handed Glascock a definitive, 48-21 defeat. The Lady Titans’ offense was efficient, powered by 21 points from freshman Destiny McClendon and 11 points by Reece.

Grill scored 6 points and Stephanie Cervantes, one of the team’s four seniors who were honored after Saturday’s game, scored 4. Cervantes said Saturday’s win proved the Lady Titans can be a force when put forth their best effort.

“I'm so happy with the way our team played,” Cervantes said. “This showed us how well we play together and we can get stuff done if we put our heart into it. I'm just really glad that I got to play on this team with this group of girls.”

Lady Titans head coach Kevin Furtado said his team entered both the Greene and Glascock games with a desire to send off the seniors, which also includes Samantha Cervantes and McKenzey Harris, with victories.

“These seniors have carried this program and we wanted them to go out on a high note,” Furtado said. “This senior class, led by Stephanie Cervantes, came through with great passes in the Greene game and Glascock game. I'm so proud of these seniors – Samantha, Stephanie, McKenzey and Meredith. It’s a great honor to coach the first senior class in school history. We call them the “legacy” team by the way they represented LOA with class and dignity.”

The four seniors are the first to leave the Lady Titans program. Grill said she considers it an honor being part of the program’s inaugural graduating class.

“It feels great,” Grill said. “I don't really know how to explain it. It doesn't really sink in right now but, as we're gonna look back, we're gonna feel just great to be a part of the first team, the building of the program and everything that goes into it.”

The Lady Titans did not receive a spot in the Region 7-A tournament this week. They were ranked No. 24 in the Class A power rating, though, which determines playoff selections. Only the top 24 teams make the state tournament; therefore, the Lady Titans were in as of this week, but they could also be left out in the final ranking.

Furtado said the possibility of making the state tournament for the first time fueled the Lady Titans during last week’s games.

“We played on a mission to prove that we deserve to be a state tournament team,” Furtado said. “The girls came together to prove that we belong to be one of the better teams in the region and show that we have a legacy team here at LOA.”

Although the Lady Titans obviously want a tournament bid, Cervantes said the future of the program is promising no matter what happens next week.

“I think the future is very bright here at LOA,” she said. “We have a great group of girls, we have amazing people coming up, we have amazing coaches. There's big things ahead for the LOA Titans.”

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