Randolph-Clay girls coach Jennifer Acree, Randolph-Clay senior Brandi Buie, Westover senior Mike Green and Westover boys coach Dallis Smith are the winners of the 2013-14 Herald Winter Sports Awards. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
Their seasons were strangely similar — a lot of basketball talent and a lot of seniors.
Their task was to mold talented squads together and make a run at a state basketball championship.
For Randolph-Clay girls coach Jennifer Acree, she did just that, molding her team together to win the Georgia High School Association Class A public school championship.
For Westover boys coach Dallis Smith, he did the same, helping guide the Patriots to the Class AAAA semifinals.
Smith has had his share of getting players to buy into his coaching concept. However, this season seemed to be a bit different.
Westover showed its potential early in the season, but there was something about Smith’s “five-in, five-out” substitution method Patriots players didn’t exactly jump on board with at the start of the year.
“All teams are different, but this one seemed to be a hard sell,” Smith said. “They were a little difficult to reach. But I thought as the season progressed, we were able to get the right combination on the floor.”
Westover finished the season 23-6, but it took a small midseason slide for the Patriots to realize what Smith and his coaching staff were trying to teach.
On Jan. 14, Westover lost a 65-50 non-region game to eventual Class AAAAAA champion Tift County. After beating Cairo a few days later, the Patriots were upended at home in a 59-58 loss to Americus-Sumter — a loss that got the team’s attention.
“Coach Smith has been doing this for a long time,” senior guard Mike Green said. “I thought if we buy into it, we could be one of those teams that could win a state championship. I saw what coach Smith was trying to do for everybody.”
The Patriots caught fire, winning their next 10 games, including consecutive victories over region contenders Worth County and Crisp County on back-to-back nights.
Then they ran away with the Region 1-AAAA tournament title.
They downed Richmond Academy, Riverdale and Glenn Hills to earn a date against powerhouse Columbia High in Carrollton. Westover lost on a last-second buzzer beater, but they may have set the foundation for future seasons.
“On the bus ride home, I believe it was MJ Vangure who was telling all the younger guys to listen to what the coaches tell you,” Smith said. “MJ told them that if they listened to the coaches, he promised they would be successful.”
Acree’s task was different but similar. She had a strong team returning that fell short in the state championship game in 2013. Herald Player of the Year Brandi Buie, who was a Super 6er in 2012, moved in and raised the Lady Red Devils’ expectations even higher.
With the exception of a two-week stretch in January where the Lady Red Devils lost three of their four games to higher classification teams, Randolph-Clay was nearly flawless. They seemed to improve greatly as the season progressed.
“I had people make comments about why we were losing when we had so much talent,” Acree said. “It took a lot of work to get the players to work together.”
Randolph-Clay took small steps, improved greatly and began playing its best shortly before the postseason began.
After an overtime victory over Mitchell County in the Region 1-A tournament on Feb. 15, the Lady Red Devils defeated Central-Talbotton, Towns County, Claxton and Mitchell County by an average of 17.7 points.
When they got back to the championship game in Macon, Acree altered her approach. In 2013, the team went up the same day. This season, they went up the day before, stayed overnight and stayed focused on the smaller things.
“We had to tone down their excitement,” Acree said. “We didn’t want them to get too hyped up before the game. We wanted the team to have a good time but (know) that it was more about the game.”