ALBANY -- There might not have been a bigger surprise in boys basketball in Southwest Georgia last season than the run by Dougherty, which played state-ranked Monroe and Westover tough as nails all season, then staged its own run in the GHSA Class AAA state tournament.
It didn't end until after Dougherty had knocked off fifth-ranked Liberty County, 59-58, on Josh Lewis' 3-pointer at the buzzer -- a win that sent the Trojans to the Elite 8. The dream ended there against LaGrange, which went on to play for the state title.
But that statement by Dougherty was big enough to earn some respect in the coaches Class AAA preseason poll, which ranks the Trojans No. 8 in Georgia.
It's hard to imagine Dougherty without Arabian Williams, who was a 5-foot-6 dynamo and Herald Super Sixer, but the Trojans bring just about everyone else back, including four starters and several players who saw time in coach Donald Poole's platoon brand of play.
"We did lose our big man,'' Poole said of the diminutive Williams. "He might not have been tall. But he was our big man -- big in lots of ways.''
The player who emerged as a threat to score and catalyst down the stretch for Dougherty was McArthur Gaines, who averaged 10 points during the season and 18 in the postseason. Gaines, a 6-2 guard who is now a senior, was fearless in the playoffs, driving and dishing off assists. He seemed to be in the middle of the flow of Dougherty's high-flying offense that took some teams by storm.
"We played team ball in the playoffs, and (Gaines) played well,'' Poole said. "He got into the playoffs and we got his confidence up. He ended up doing a good job.''
Poole kept the pressure on by substituting in waves, and he has four starters back -- Gaines, Chris Holmes, a 6-1 senior, Tim Washington, a 6-4 senior, and Thalandis Chester, a 5-10 senior. But players such as Darrell Anthony, a 6-2 junior, Zapatas Pickett, a 5-8 senior, Jamoski Shealy, a 5-0 senior, Marquize Brunson, a 6-0 senior, Montavious Heath, Josh Christian, a 5-11 senior, Raymond Payne, a 6-2 senior, and Lewis, a 5-9 sophomore, all saw minutes last season.
"I think we surprised some people last year,'' Poole said. "But I don't think we surprised too many people in the program. It's not how you start off, it's how you end up.''
Dougherty ended up just fine with the inspirational run, and that has to help the confidence this season. Poole has a dozen players back from that team, including 10 seniors.
"We've got some guys who have been in the program for four years,'' Poole said. "But it doesn't matter how many you bring back. It matters how well they jell as a team. Any of the 15 players we have might start. We still don't have much height.''
Washington is the tallest Trojan, but everyone crashes the boards for a team that wins without an ego.
"We don't care who scores the points,'' Gaines said. "That doesn't matter. We're just trying to win. Winning last year helped build our confidence as a team. We know we have to play that way to win.''
That's simple enough.
"It's one team, one drive,'' said Holmes, who led Dougherty with 15 points in the Trojans' 55-52 opening night win against Albany last weekend.
How much will carry over from last year's dramatic run remains to be seen, but Poole knows the formula is there.
"Two years ago, we just couldn't get over the hump,'' he said. "Last year we got over the hump, and once we started getting success we started playing harder. They know they have to play hard. They know if they are going to play at Dougherty High, they are going to have to play hard.''
That's the way the Trojans do it, and Dougherty's offense seems to run at full throttle all the time.
"We certainly hope we can run,'' Poole said. "But kids will be kids. You have to stay on them. We always felt we could play with anybody, and we did (make a run at the end of the year). But you can't live off the past. We ran 12 out there last year and everyone got to see some time on the court, and that should help us (experience-wise). But we have to do what we do.''