Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

ALBANY -- The score was 51-4 -- and it was just halftime.

"Embarrassed, ashamed...That was the low point. That was the worst,'' said John Schramm, a senior who has seen it all while playing for Sherwood Christian Academy's boys basketball team.

No, the Sherwood kids did not come back in that game.

But they've came back from everything else.

Back from oblivion and more, back from losing their best player to graduation a year ago and back from losing their best player to a transfer at the beginning of the season.

But there they were after practice Wednesday afternoon, standing next to each other -- these kids no one believed in -- getting ready for a run in the GISA state tournament. They were standing a few feet apart, but even then, it was easy to see just how much they lean on each other.

Just look at SCA's last three games. There has been a different leading scorer every night: Brannan Anthony led the Eagles with 20 in the final regular season game, Schramm led the way with 21 in the Region 3-AA semifinals and Wesley Pittman scored 27 in the region final victory against Tiftarea that ended a six-year title drought. Gary Holloway was right behind Pittman with 15 points and nine rebounds.

"It just made us play more as a team,'' Pittman said. "Last year we relied on Cameron Williams (who graduated) a lot. This year we rely on each other. I think (everything that has happened) made us closer.''

Maybe that's why they're making history at SCA, where they hadn't won a region title since 2004; where they haven't been to the Final Four since 1996, and where they have never won a state title.

They're used to hearing never around SCA, as in 'this team will never win.'''

That's what they were saying a couple of years ago when the Eagles were going through a two-year stretch in which they won seven games. That's what some people around Albany were saying when Daquan Green, who was poised to be the team's best player this season, left at the beginning of this season to attend Westover, where his father, former NBA player Dontonio Winfield, had starred for the Patriots.

"We lost a player and that's never fun,'' SCA coach Matt Ruta said. "But these kids showed a lot of character. We really don't talk about that. Everyone has moved on.''

It was tough at the time, especially when SCA started the season at 1-2.

"Players and friends from other schools and parents and (people around Albany) were saying we weren't going to be good,'' said Holloway, a junior who came to SCA this season. "After we lost Daquan everybody expected us not to get where we are. Now they are all saying they think we will go all the way.''

All the way? Sherwood opens the tournament tonight at Middle Georgia College in Cochran against Piedmont. A victory sends the Eagles back to the Elite Eight, where they lost last year by two points to eventual state champ Arlington Christian.

This is a different team, closer, more confident, a team that isn't just looking to win, but looks to each other. Pittman (13), Holloway (12), Anthony (10) all average double figures and Schramm is right behind at nine points a game.

"We've had multiple players step up,'' Ruta said. "We have eight players who have scored in double figures in at least one game.''

Junior Alex Harrell had a 21-point, 16-rebound game, and senior Pete McSwain has had some big games, including the region final when he came off the bench and grabbed three quick rebounds and scored four points in the heat of the game.

McSwain is one of seven seniors who was around for that two-year nightmare when no one came to games and no one cared. Now the school buzzes with news about the team, and there's even a wild and crazy student section at games. They call themselves the "Crunk Crew.'' It was Schramm, who was out with a foot injury last season, who started the Crunks.

"That (two-year stretch) was terrible, really bad,'' Schramm said. But the Sherwood 7 -- Pittman, Schramm, Anthony, McSwain, Josh Mattox, Tony Foster and Derinque Daniel -- stuck around for the good times.

"I didn't want to quit, because I liked playing basketball,'' Pittman said. "But I never expected to win. Everything changed when coach Ruta came here.''

Ruta, who came from Florida, has a two-year career record of 39-12, but even he didn't imagine a fastbreak like the one Sherwood has run.

"I thought it would take a lot longer to have this kind of success. This just doesn't happen. I thought if we could fight and get to around .500 I would be happy,'' Ruta said.

He's ecstatic. The Eagles are 19-6, after winning 13 of the last 16 games. The light at the end of the tunnel starting showing up in Disney World -- well, sort of.

"We made a trip to a Christmas Tournament in Orlando. That's when I saw them come together,'' Ruta said. "I saw them spending time together off the court, and playing better on the court. That's when I started thinking we can be pretty good. Before that tournament we still didn't know who we were. I felt that gave us more of an identity.''

SCA went 2-1 and beat a Class 6A team from Florida in that tourney, then came home and ran off an eight-game winning streak and just started rolling toward the region title and a run at state.

"We never got our heads down, physically or mentally,'' Holloway said. "The more afraid you are to fall, the more you catch yourself.''

Maybe it was the fear of falling that forged that close bond they have, or maybe the memory of all those losses, that 51-4 disaster and more -- or the memory of the lost feeling when no one cared.

All of that is behind Sherwood now, and no one is looking back. There is far too much to look forward to now for a team that has already come further than anyone would have guessed.

But they're not done.

"We have to stay hungry,'' Pittman said. "We can't be satisfied with winning the region.''