Led by longtime coach Gordy Gruhl, center, red shirt, the Deerfield-Windsor boys basketball team is right back in the mix for a state title after quietly putting together one of the best seasons of any program in Georgia. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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WHO: Region 3, No. 1 seed Deerfield-Windsor boys (23-3) vs. Region 1, No. 1 Dominion Christian (22-7).
WHAT: GISA Class AAA Final Four.
WHEN: 7 p.m. today.
WHERE: Mercer University, Macon.
LIVE UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
MACON — Nobody talks about it. Nobody has to.
It’s there and it’s understood, and it’s as much a part of this year’s Deerfield-Windsor’s boys basketball team as the blue and red letters on the jerseys.
It’s the quiet resolve that drives these kids, the fire that burns so deep within them that no one needs to say a word.
There’s no rah-rah or magic theme or catch phrases for this team. There are no banners with a slick nickname or T-shirts calling them the team of destiny or some other clever jump-on-the-bandwagon staple that defines them.
In fact, if this DWS team needed a theme or catch phrase, it would be simply this: Silent Knights.
That’s who they are, this tough, blue-collar bunch that knows what it takes to win and knows even more what it has taken to get here — to make it to the Final Four.
“It’s an unwritten rule that we had to make it to the Final Four. It didn’t have to be said,” said Weston King, one of nine seniors on a team that has waited longer than most at DWS to climb to this plateau.
That’s where DWS is today, and after a two-year absence this group will face Dominion Christian at 7 p.m. at Mercer University’s Hawkins Arena in the GISA Class AAA Final Four, just two wins away from a state title.
This one seems to mean so much more. Maybe it’s because they haven’t been here since 2010. Maybe it’s because they were shocked last year with an exit in the first round of the playoffs. Maybe it’s because only one player, Herald Super 6er Ramello Carter, has been here before.
This team has a quiet bond, and there’s strength in the silence.
“I think there is a sense of redemption,’’ said Carter, who was the sixth man on the 2010 state championship team. “When we lost in the first round last year, it was devastating.’’
Everyone felt that way.
“We were stunned,’’ said Jay Barber, a junior and two-year starter at guard. “We just sat there in the locker room. No one knew what to say. I don’t think it really hit us until the next day. It hit us, and it hit us bad.’’
It wasn’t just that loss. This is Deerfield, where making the Final Four is a way of life.
“It’s like the old saying: ‘You don’t appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone.’ We had been to the Final Four five years in a row and six out of seven. Everybody just expects us to be in the Final Four,” said DWS’ legendary coach Gordy Gruhl, who has won more than 1,000 career games, including four state boys titles and two more with the girls team. “It’s just unacceptable not to go to the Final Four at this school. One year is OK, but two years seemed to be a catastrophe. It was unheard of.
“But going five years in a row is pretty tough to do. The community got used to it, and it’s like what the Braves did all those years. People don’t appreciate it.”
Gruhl loves this team — and for all the right reasons.
There is a toughness and grit with this group, and it is born in their all-out effort on defense, and that defense has not only carried the Knights this season but all but defined them.
“This team is not as offensively talented and gifted as the 2010 team,’’ Gruhl said. “One thing this team has done is they have filled their role and played their role well. All of them have bought into playing good defense. There’s a reason coaches say that great defense wins championships, because it’s true.’’
DWS has had its offensive moments, however, scoring 100 points or more three times this season, but even in those games it was the “D” in DWS that produced many of those points.
“We have played great defense, and we have scored about 60 to 65 percent of our points on transition baskets,’’ Gruhl said. “We score a lot of points on turnovers. This team is as good as any I’ve ever had at that, and they get up and down the floor better than any team I’ve ever had. We get a lot of easy baskets. Their transition game is the best I’ve ever had.’’
There’s another quality to this group that Gruhl loves.
“This is the deepest team I’ve ever had,’’ said Gruhl, who plays eight or nine players all the time. “We have incredible depth. I could go even deeper. I’ve got other kids who could play, but you only have 32 minutes. If we were playing 50-minute games, I could play 12 or more and get even more kids in the game.’’
The secret to that formula is having kids who are unselfish, and this bunch doesn’t care who scores or who is on the court.
“When you play that many kids you could have some jealousy,” Gruhl said. “This team doesn’t have that. They have bought into the idea of helping the team and not worrying about themselves. They’re unselfish.”
Carter leads the Knights with an 18.5 points-per-game average, but King and Pete Langstaff are averaging eight points a night, and Barber and fellow guard Jason Battle are both scoring a little more than six points a game.
Gruhl points to his depth when it comes to scoring.
“You have King (at the post) and he’s getting eight points, but two other guys come in and play there and we get about five points a night from Justin Eady and three from Zach Jarzin, so that’s 16 points out of that position,” the coach said. “And Ryan Toole, a sophomore, plays. There’s a lot of times he comes in and scores for us.”
The bench all contributes. Players such as Eady, Jarzin, Toole, Sam Shellhaas, Dee Barber and sophomore Christian Walker have all had their moments this season, and Gruhl said KH’Ron McClain, KE’Marvin Pitts and John Germany — all of whom played for the state champion football team — can also contribute.
“There’s no question that this is the deepest team I’ve ever had, 1-through-15,” Gruhl said.
King, Shellhaas, McClain, Pitts and Germany started basketball two days after DWS won the state football title, and that title brought some toughness to the basketball team — along with a burden.
Moments after DWS won the state football title, DWS football coach Allen Lowe walked up to Gruhl, who is also the athletic director at Deerfield, and slapped his hand.
“Tag, you’re it,’’ said Lowe, putting some extra pressure on the longtime Knights coach to win a state title on the court.
“There is that extra burden coach Lowe put on us,’’ said King, a two-way lineman in football. But King added that the real pressure comes from the kids who want to make a point, especially after losing in the first round of the playoffs a year ago.
“We lost that game, and we have carried that loss with us for 365 days,’’ King said. “There’s a lot of pressure on us, especially going in as a favorite.”
The Knights have earned that respect.
They have lost just one game in Georgia this season and haven’t lost a game in 2013. After losing to the top private school team in Alabama, the Knights have rolled up an 18-game winning streak and enter tonight’s game at 23-3.
The Knights not only turned it up on defense during the 18-game win streak, but they shot the ball better from beyond the arc. DWS was shooting 19 percent from the 3-point line in December, but is now shooting better than 30 percent. Langstaff is shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc, and Dee Barber (32 percent) and Carter (31 percent) have all been dangerous from 3-point land, combining to make 70 treys.
The kids gained confidence during the winning streak and will take that into tonight’s game as well.
“When we won our 12th game in a row, that’s when I started to think this could be a special season and we could win it all,’’ King said.
Carter said his eyes popped open Jan. 26 when Deerfield beat rival Southland, 71-11.
“When we held Southland to 11 points, that’s when I thought, ‘If we can play defense like that then we definitely have a chance to win a state championship,’ ” Carter said.
That rock-solid defense was evident in DWS’ 59-32 win against Tattnall Square last Saturday in the Elite 8. With three minutes left in the game, Tattnall had scored just seven baskets from the field, a stat that even left Gruhl saying, “Wow.”
King said at practice Wednesday that, “Defense is the key for us.”
No one will argue.
And no one will doubt these kids belong, either, or be shocked if they win it all.
“We are right where we wanted to be,” Jay Barber said. “We wanted to get back to the Final Four. We want to get that tradition back, and we want to be part of the tradition at Deerfield.’’
It’s been a long and silent ride, but they’re here now and ready to put their fingerprints on the DWS legacy.
“I don’t know if redemption is the right word for this team,’’ Gruhl said. “It’s more like they believe this is our chance to prove it to ourselves to be one of the best in Deerfield history.”