GSW leading scorer Matt Shaw (33) returned this year from a season-ending injury in 2011 and is averaging 12.8 points and 4.8 rebounds a game. Shaw and the Hurricanes are off to a 6-2 start to the season and are 2-0 in PBC play for the first time. (Georgia Southwestern/Special to The Herald)
AMERICUS — All of a sudden, the nightmares of last season started creeping back into the head of Georgia Southwestern men’s basketball coach Mike Leeder.
Austin Kelly walked away from the team with no warning, and starting guards Bobby Glover and Derrick Dawkins went down with season-ending injuries.
Everything seemed like it was falling apart — again.
“It seemed like we had a three-week stretch there where we were losing a guy a week,” Leeder said. “You kind of almost start getting used to it.”
One year after a promising season was ravaged by injuries, the 2012-13 season looked to be starting out the exact same way.
But there was one big difference this time around: the Hurricanes were winning.
“We have had to come together as a team,” junior Alan Arnett said. “It’s just us, and that is how we are looking at it now. Everybody has to be involved, whether you are on the bench cheering or on the floor playing.”
Arnett, a transfer from Kankakee Community College (Ill.), wasn’t on last year’s team that lost 10 of its final 11 games when star forward and reigning Peach Belt Conference Player of the Year Phillip Brown went down with a knee injury, but he’s played a staring role on this year’s team that has had to overcome similar hurdles.
Despite the fact the Hurricanes lost three key players from their roster in the opening month of the season, they’ve responded with a 6-2 record and their first 2-0 start in the Peach Belt play since joining NCAA Division II in 2006.
They haven’t done it with a team full of superstars but rather with a group of dedicated role players — eight of whom average between 6-13 points per game — who have accepted an all-for-one attitude in the face of adversity.
“As I look back, if we didn’t have these type of kids we might not have been able to absorb (the injuries),” Leeder said. “We have high character guys and guys that practice hard every day. They are good teammates to each other and are good at focusing on what is next, whether it’s the next play in the game or the next time we practice. They are pretty good at focusing on only what they can control.”
Last year’s season started spiraling out of control when Brown suffered a season-ending injury in the opening minutes against Augusta State on Jan. 21. The Hurricanes also lost Division I-transfer post players Milos Kleut and Matt Shaw to injuries, and star guard and reigning PBC Freshman of the Year Colin Slotter was dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons — one obstacle after another that resulted in a 12-14 overall record and 3-14 PBC record in 2011 after starting the year 11-3 and as the defending Western Conference champs.
It got so bad last season that Leeder had to stick a basketball jersey on a GSW soccer player just to have eight eligible players for the final game of the season.
“It seemed like every time we turned around we were losing someone,” Leeder said. “Three Division I transfers in the post all had season-ending injuries. It got to be incredibly frustrating. You wonder how good we could have been if Phillip hadn’t gone down, because we had a good team.”
It was all-too-familiar territory for Leeder when names started dropping off his roster this season.
It started Nov. 17 against Albany State when Glover, a returning starter, tore his ACL in his first appearance of the season after missing the first two games with a concussion.
Later that week, the Hurricanes lost Kelly, a Duke football transfer and two-sport high school star who suddenly left Americus to deal with the recent death of his father.
“His dad had passed away a few months before the season had actually started, and he was going through that,” said Arnett, who was also Kelly’s roommate. “Me and another teammate got a chance to talk to him about it, but you can’t explain how he feels when we’ve never gone through anything like that.”
In the initial days after Kelly’s departure, no one knew exactly what had happened to GSW’s starting guard.
“Usually we leave for class at the same time, and I thought he just wasn’t going to class because it was cancelled or something,” Arnett said. “But then later on we had practice, and he wasn’t there. It came as a surprise to everybody. He doesn’t seem like the person to just quit.”
As of last week Leeder said he still hadn’t heard from Kelly, who joined the team in June after playing four seasons as a receiver for the Blue Devils.
“He packed his stuff up and left after the Albany State game, and he never communicated to me why,” Leeder said. “He just wasn’t there for practice (the following) Monday.”
Four games later against Georgia College on Dec. 11, Dawkins, the team’s starting point guard, tore his meniscus and — just like Glover — had to have season-ending knee surgery.
“We went from having a guard too many to now back to being shorthanded, but the guys have played really well,” Leeder said. “They do a great job of sharing the ball.”
No one has embraced the changes better than Shaw, who is GSW’s senior leader and has fully recovered from last year’s season-ending injury. He leads the team in scoring with 12.8 points per game, is shooting a team-best 66.7 percent from the floor and averages 4.8 rebounds a game.
“Matt has come back in incredible shape and is having the kind of year that we have been waiting for ever since he transferred in here,” Leeder said.
The memory of last season has only pushed Shaw through this year’s trials.
“We knew we were a lot better than our record was showing at the end (of last season),” said Shaw, who tried to play through his injury for a time before being forced to permanently take a seat on the bench. “We knew we were supposed to be winning those games, which made it harder. Now we know how to handle these things and help the other guys along.”
Arnett, who is second on the team in scoring at 11.6 points per game, has been a big part of this year’s success.
“Coach Leeder preaches that it’s the next guy up and it’s about pulling for each other as a team,” said Arnett, who doesn’t start but still leads the team in playing time. “I think that’s what has been helping us so far. There aren’t any egos on the team, and we have all come together as one.”
Shaw and Arnett are the only Hurricanes who average double-figure points, but Jamon Hawkins (8.9 ppg), Michael Tankersley (7.5 ppg), Kleut (6.9 ppg) and Daryl Davis (6.0 ppg) all score at least six points a game.
The Hurricanes dropped their season opener to Fort Valley State in overtime but then responded with wins against Brevard College and Albany State before losing another close game to North Alabama — the team it begins its second half of the season against today after an extended holiday break.
Since then it’s been nothing but victories, starting with back-to-back wins against Tusculum College and a pair of PBC victories against Georgia College and Clayton State.
“We have had a couple of really good teams here that didn’t get off to 2-0 starts, so it feels really good to be the first (GSW) team to do that,” Leeder said. “We went to Georgia College and won against a program that we have had very little success against. And then to beat Clayton State at home, we got two wins against teams in our division. So not only are we 2-0, but we beat two teams from our side.”
And get this: In preseason, GSW was picked to finish ninth in the conference. Now, the Hurricanes are one of just four teams in the 14-school conference that is out to a 2-0 start.
“We talked about it at the beginning of the season how we were picked ninth, and all of the guys knew that wasn’t going to be the case,” Shaw said. “It was kind of a slap in the face, and we wanted to let the conference know that we were here and we were serious.”
Minutes after the Hurricanes, who hadn’t won a PBC opener since 2008, pulled out the victory at Georgia College, Leeder explained to his players how close they were to making school history.
“As soon as we beat Georgia College, one of the things we talked about in the locker room before we got on the bus to go back to Americus was that no team has ever started off 2-0 here, and that was a point of emphasis all three days in practice leading up to the Clayton State game,” Leeder said.
The Hurricanes took care of business against Clayton State on Dec. 15 in the final game before their 15-day break, and Shaw is confident he and his teammates will have similar success in the second half of the season.
“We feel like we have worked hard and that we deserved these two wins,” Shaw said. “We want to keep going, though, and not be satisfied with 2-0. We want to keep winning.”