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PREP BASKETBALL NOTEBOOK/ROUNDUP: New Pelham girls coach has Lady Hornets buzzing over 4-0 start; DWS boys hitting stride; Sherwood boys rout Brookwood, girls fall

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

PELHAM -- The glaring number is 27-25 -- the combined record the last two years for the Pelham girls basketball team.

And while it may be too soon to crown the Lady Hornets the queens of anything, the days of mediocrity in Mitchell County appear to be over for this program.

Enter Antonia Tookes, Pelham's new coach who not only brought a winning mentality from state power Camden County, where she was an assistant for the last six years, but she has her team off to a 4-0 start -- making Pelham the only unbeaten girls program in Southwest

Georgia other than Herald No. 1 Westover (7-0).

And just like she teachers her players to be supremely confident on the court, don't expect Tookes to be modest about the beginning of her tenure.

"Am I surprised (at being 4-0)? Not really. They told me when I interviewed for the job that we had three really good guards who could score," Tookes said. "And I said, 'Well, OK. I can work with that.' I'm a defensive-minded coach, so if they can score, I can teach them the defense."

That was never more evident in Pelham's second-to-last win against Calhoun County, which came into the game unbeaten at 5-0 and blowing teams off the court.

Final score? Pelham 63, Calhoun County 39.

Then there was the dismantling of defending Region 1-A champ Randolph-Clay in the last game, 64-49.

Tookes called both the wins "huge."

"Those were really big wins; huge wins for us. Because Calhoun County and Randolph-Clay are both well-coached," she said. "I just told my girls that if we played good defense and run our plays, we'd force some turnovers, get easy baskets and layups, and that's what we did."

That's what it's all about these days at Pelham, where Tookes took over this season for outgoing girls coach Derrick Lavatte, who now is an assistant on the team helping to show her the ropes as she takes on a new team, in a new town and as a first-time head coach.

"He's been a lot of help so far. He knows these girls because he's coached them for several years, so it's (nice to have his insight)," she said.

Of course, it helps when a team has three superstars -- Herald Super 6er D'Ambria Thomas (a senior) and juniors Octavia Kierce and Ta'Shaunessy Reese -- who can drop the hammer on opposing defenses on any given night.

And while The Herald may have anointed Thomas the best on the Lady Hornets' team coming out of preseason with her Super 6 selection, Tookes says all three guards were deserving of the honor.

"All three really could've been on that list," she said. "You look at what they've done so far: D'Ambria scored 29 (in a 73-70 win against Mitchell County) to open the season and then 23 against Stewart County (the next game); then Octavia scored 26 against Calhoun; and Shay had 30 against Randolph-Clay.

"They've been playing together for three years now and they know each other so well, and when one of them gets hot, they just know it and look out for each other. They just feed each other all night."

Through four games, Thomas leads with a 25-point-per-game average, followed by a 21-point average by Kierce and 15 by Reese, while Reese leads the team in rebounding with an average of 12 per game.

But while Pelham is scoring an average of 65.25 points a game, the Lady Hornets are holding their opposition to just 45.5 a game, including a 61-24 demolition of Stewart County in their second game of the year.

"I came in (to this job) preaching defense, defense, defense to the girls," Tookes said. "I told them that I want our core focus to be defense because that's where it starts. Defense ignites offense, and if they play some great defense, great offense will come (with ease)."

The Lady Hornets suit back up tonight as they host Terrell County, then travel to face Quitman County on Saturday.

And by the time the weekend is over, Tookes says she expects that 4-0 mark to climb to 6-0.

Although, the coach wouldn't go as far to predict that Pelham would win the region title -- like her counterpart at Randolph-Clay, coach Jennifer Acree, did last week when Acree said her team would still repeat as region champs, despite a slow start and loss to Bainbridge -- but Tookes did say she liked the team's outlook so far.

"If we keep playing like we're playing, I like our chances (against anyone)," she said.

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DEERFIELD BOYS ABOUT TO HIT STRIDE?:

After a state championship season in GISA Class AAA last year, Deerfield boys basketball coach Gordy Gruhl probably expected to hit the ground running en route to a title defense.

But so far, it hasn't worked out that way -- but with good reason.

The Knights are off to a 2-2 start, but that's due mostly to the fact that eight of their 14 varsity players got in just two days of practice before their first game after the school's football team won the state crown on the gridiron on a Friday, then had just Sunday and Monday to workout together before opening the season the following Tuesday.

"I told (DWS football coach Allen) Lowe that one of these years we're going to play our basketball season first and then give him two days advance notice to get the kids he needs for football -- and then he can see how it feels," Gruhl said with a laugh. "But in all seriousness, though, it's been tough. It's hard to flip that switch and automatically go from thinking about football, football, football to turning that focus to basketball. It takes time."

And while DWS won the opener against Brookwood after those two brief practice sessions, it went on to lose its next two games in a row, before pulling its record even this past Tuesday with a win against Mount de Sales.

After that victory, Gruhl -- who was less than pleased after back-to-back losses to Mount Vernon and Stratford last weekend -- said he felt like his team had improved "dramatically" in between the two losses last Friday and Saturday the win Tuesday.

"It was encouraging. If you ask me where we were better, I'd say everywhere -- every phase of the game," he said. "The defense was much better. The offensive execution was much better. We shared the ball better. We shot better. Every part of our game was significantly better. And that was important because Mount de Sales is no slouch. They have a very good team."

But it's taken two weeks to get there, despite the fact that Banks Kinslow -- DWS' star quarterback from its state title football team -- is the only starter who had to step in immediately. The other seven players who came over from football -- Dallas Margeson, Patrick Forrestal, KeMarvin Pitts, Zach Jarzen, Jason Battle, John Germany and Weston King -- are all sophomores, but most will play roles this year and Gruhl also needs a full roster of players to run his practices.

The Knights return to action tonight on the road against Tattnall Square -- and there's another connection with the football team there, as well: The Trojans lost to DWS in the state title game two weeks ago, meaning they'll be looking for payback of some kind on the hardwood.

"It's been pretty quiet between the two teams (as far as trash talk) goes," said Gruhl, referring to the back and forth between the two programs and their players on message boards as they prepped for their state championship showdown. "But I'm sure it's in their kids' minds that they want to beat us (because of what happened in that football game) and they have two of their best players from that team also playing basketball. It's going to be a real test for us."

And one player Gruhl says who has risen to the occasion so far and passed most every test that has come his way is Albany transfer Tyrone Culbreath, a 6-foot-4 sophomore who is averaging 10 points and 12 rebounds a game.

"He's a beast. He's a good defender, shot blocker and overall just a great addition to our team," Gruhl said. "And he's only a sophomore so we expect good things to come from him."

Deerfield turns around after tonight's game at Tattnall and plays at home Saturday against Central Fellowship Academy.