ALBANY -- The first time the Westover boys basketball team got together this summer, they broke the huddle with the same mantra as always: "State."
That's just the way it is at Westover. Nothing changes in the Boston Garden, where tradition lives and breathes life into every new team.
Even a team as new as this year's Patriots.
Westover didn't get hit with graduation. The Patriots were run over by a Mack truck, and if this were any other program in the state, the basketball fans would be talking about next year. Not at Westover.
"I think this is probably the hardest I've ever been hit. Yeah, this is the biggest hit,'' said Dallis Smith, who has been the head boys basketball coach at Westover for 11 years.
Four starters and two key bench players all graduated, including Herald Super Sixer Onochie Ochie. Also gone is Chris Wheeler, who was the bread and butter man inside, as well as lightning quick guards Shevren Keaton and Anthony Ball. That group played together as a unit two years ago when they were juniors and reached the state title game, then made the Final Four last year as seniors.
But Smith didn't use the same kind of platoon last year. He did bring in a second unit to close out the first quarter of games and that team played from time to time, but those players are going to have to make huge strides this season to keep Westover's legacy of greatness in tact.
Smith expects nothing less.
"We break and say 'State,' from the first time they are together with every team, because that's the goal every year,'' Smith said. "That won't change. We preach tradition and winning. Our goal every year is not only to get there, but to win it.''
His kids responded well in the summer league. They played more than 40 games and lost only once -- to Florida state power Rickards in Tallahassee.
"But that's summer ball,'' Smith said with a smile.
He can also smile at the coaches preseason Top 10 poll that has Westover ranked fourth in Class AAA.
Smith wants to end the season in the top four, but he knows he has a long way to go. He also knows everyone else around Southwest Georgia knows Westover lost just about everybody. His phone has been ringing a lot more often -- seems a lot of teams want to schedule the Pats this season.
Smith does have a couple of solid building blocks. He returns only one starter, but it's difficult to imagine a better outside shooter than Malcolm Sapp, who was Herald All-Area player as a junior.
"I once watched him make 17 3s in a row during practice,'' Smith said of Sapp. "He is an amazing shooter.''
Sapp, a 6-foot-3 forward who averaged 19 points a game, also grabbed about a half dozen rebounds a night last year. And during Westover's stretch run in the playoffs, Sapp seemed to grab big rebounds when Westover needed them most -- specifically against South Atlanta late in the game after both big men, Ochie and Wheeler, had fouled out.
"We will be looking for him to do even more this year,'' Smith said of Sapp's versatility. "Everybody knows about Malcolm and they will be double-teaming and trying to stop him this year. He has to take his game to the next level. He's very quiet. I call him the silent assassin.''
Smith would also like for junior Dequan Green, who saw time off the bench last year, to make an impact. There's every reason to believe he will. Green is the son of Albany native and former Cincinnati star and NBA player Dontonio Wingfield, who was a standout at Westover. Green, a 6-3 guard, transferred to Westover from Sherwood Christian Academy last year. In a preseason exhibition game against Class AAAA Lowndes this year, Green scored 40 points to give a hint of what might be capable of doing.
Then there's Joseph Harrell, a 6-7 senior who saw time off the bench. He is going to have to take over inside for a team that doesn't have an abundance of height. Smith will also be counting on Brandon Johnson, a 6-2 junior, Ricky Purh, a 5-9 junior, Donavan Bryant, a 5-8 junior, and Kenny Townes, a 6-3 junior, to find a way to keep Westover's tradition alive and well. He also has Trent Brown, a 6-8, 290-pound senior who was the football team's largest offensive lineman, and Shernard Childs, a 5-10 junior.
"They will have to find their niche,'' Smith said. "Players like Green and Joseph, now it's their time. It's their year. You have a different team every year, and now it's their turn to step up. I try to tell them that people will be coming at them just because you have a Westover jersey.''
Yes, tradition is a two-way street.
"Tradition means they will come after you, but that tradition helps a lot,'' Smith said. When you have a rich tradition, it means something when you put on that Westover jersey. We will see how this team comes along. I'm looking forward to it. The younger guys have to step up and be accountable to the Westover program. It's passing the baton to the young guys.
"It's their turn.''