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Higher expectations

Georgia Southwestern coach Mike Leeder said he pushed the Hurricanes physically and mentally at practice after the Hurricanes lost their first three Peach Belt Conference games of the season.

Georgia Southwestern coach Mike Leeder said he pushed the Hurricanes physically and mentally at practice after the Hurricanes lost their first three Peach Belt Conference games of the season.

AMERICUS — Georgia Southwestern coach Mike Leeder would be the first one to tell you that no one really feared the Hurricanes before last season.

But a Peach Belt Conference championship and an NCAA Division II men’s basketball national ranking does a lot to change minds.

Now the 2011-12 Hurricanes, who started out the season 0-3 in PBC play before winning a pair of conference games in the past week, are feeling the bullseye square on their backs.

“You get everybody’s best shot,” said Leeder, whose Hurricanes are now 11-3 overall and 2-3 in conference play. “In the past, a win against Georgia Southwestern was something teams (felt like they) should have done. Now it’s a big win. People have circled our game as a big game. We get a different effort (from opposing teams) than we have ever faced.”

The Hurricanes are led by All-American and reigning PBC Player of the Year Phillip Brown, who is averaging 18.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.

Darton's Hicks wins title

Alliance, Ohio — Darton College 184-pounder Trey Hicks dominated the 2012 Purple Raider Open on Monday to win the championship title at the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio.

Hicks, a sophomore from Tifton, beat Kent State’s Cory Campbell, 7-5, to become the victor over a pool of student-athletes from NCAA D-1 powerhouse programs.

“To beat a guy like that — that was a huge win,” Darton first-year wrestling coach Chris Fleeger said. “That kid was good. He was solid and came from a D-1 program whose upper-weights have won recent national titles.”

Now Fleeger’s office phone is steadily ringing with NCAA coaches seeking Hicks’ fall transfer, he said.

“Everyone was just so impressed with him,” Fleeger said. “His positioning — his match awareness — it was pretty incredible. Controlling-wise, he was in no danger of losing, or getting scored on, in any of his matches.”

Leading up to the championship final, Hicks defeated Keith Johnson of Ohio University, 14-5, and Wendell Christian of Mount Union, 3-1.

Hicks said hard work and listening to the advice of his coaches paved the way to what is so far the biggest win of his wrestling career.

“You just have to buy into the program and stay focused,” he said.

Hicks began wrestling as a seventh grader and finished fourth at the GHSAA championship his senior year at Tift County High School before attending Darton. The exercise science major also keeps his focus in the classroom, and has an above-average GPA.

They opened up the season with a perfect 6-0 record, but then three straight PBC losses to Montevallo, Clayton State and Lander showed the team how much different it is playing as the favorite.

“Teams were excited to play us,” Leeder said. “That’s something we need to get used to, playing with a lot of expectations.”

Instead of being the hunter, the Hurricanes are now the hunted.

That was evident Jan. 7 when Lander’s Dwight Tolbert hit a game-winning shot to edge out GSW, 75-74. The Lander home crowd erupted and even began to rush the court in celebration of knocking off the favorites, which is something Leeder and the Hurricanes are starting to get used to.

“I think we figured out that we are an important game,” Leeder said. “Last year, I don’t know how serious people took us, but now it’s important when we come in.”

After that loss to Lander, which dropped the Hurricanes to 0-3 in conference, Leeder said he pushed his players at practice harder than he ever had in his 22 years of coaching.

And they responded.

GSW got its first PBC win Saturday at home against Armstrong Atlantic and followed that up with a home victory Monday against Flagler College. In fact, GSW is 6-0 at home this season and is carrying a seven-game home winning streak dating back to last season.

“I think it’s definitely a difficult place to play,” Leeder said of GSW’s Storm Dome, which has seen nothing but good crowds since last year’s historical season. “It definitely is a home-court advantage.”

As good as the Hurricanes have been at home, they have been equally disappointing on the road, losing three of four.

Their toughness away from the Storm Dome will be tested soon when they travel to Augusta State on Saturday and USC Aiken on Monday for a couple of important conference matchups. USC Aiken is the only undefeated team left in the conference, and Augusta State’s only loss in its last four PBC games was to USC Aiken.

FRIENDLY RIVALRY: South Georgia Tech women’s basketball coach Brandan Harrell called Wednesday’s upcoming game between the Lady Jets and Albany Tech both a “friendly rivalry” and one of the toughest region games of the season.

With Tuesday’s 63-49 victory against Middle Georgia, South Georgia Tech is 8-0 in Region XVII play and has played every team in the region but Albany Tech (11-7, 3-4).

Despite Albany Tech’s sub-.500 region record, Harrell expects the game in the Albany State gym to be a battle.

“In conference, it seems like every road game is tough, and especially down (in Albany),” said Harrell, whose Lady Titans host East College Georgia on Saturday. “The big, open gym is a different environment for our kids. We have struggled on the road at times, and their kids are really comfortable shooting in that gym, especially (Shakima) Wiggins.”

Wiggins and Bianca Fennessee have been steady leaders for the Lady Titans, who got off to a fast start this season before stumbling a bit in region play. Wiggins is leading the region in scoring with 20.8 points per game, while Fennessee isn’t far behind at 13.5 points per game. Fennessee also leads the region in rebounding (16.9 rebounds per game) and blocks (4.1 blocks per game).

TITANIC LEADER: Jamorris Gaines didn’t even start during his senior season at Worth County.

Now the 6-foot-5 Albany Tech sophomore is one of the biggest offensive weapons in all of Region XVII.

Gaines is leading the region in scoring with 19.5 points per game, pulling down 6.5 rebounds a game and getting calls from Division I schools all over the country, including Ole Miss, Georgia State, Wright State and South Carolina State.

“He has really carried us this year,” said Albany Tech coach Sylvester Patterson, whose Titans are 10-9 overall and 4-3 in region play. “He can shoot the 3, or he can go over the top of you. He is probably averaging three or four offensive rebounds per game. He probably averages more offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds. He is such a good athlete and has a good basketball IQ, too.”

As a part-time starter last season who averaged around 10 points per game, Gaines had the height and the athleticism to succeed, but Patterson said he was just missing a jump shot.

Around 200-300 jumpers a day last summer fixed that.

Gaines hit just a dozen 3-pointers last season but has already knocked down 43 this season, helping him have the highest scoring average in the five-year history of the Albany Tech program.