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Last season but technically this year, the Westlake boys’ basketball program ended a 14-year title drought with a Class 6-A championship victory over Pebblebrook in Macon, Georgia.
After winning titles in 1999 and 2002, the Lions fell short in 2006 to Dunwoody in the championship game and 2010 to Milton in the Class 5-A finale. Six years ago, I was there courtside at what was known then as the Gwinnett Arena and now identified as Infinite Energy Arena when Marcus Thornton, who was named “Mr. Basketball” in Georgia that year by the Atlanta Tip-Off Club and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, rolled his ankle in pregame warm-ups and couldn’t participate in his final high school game.
But those two disappointing moments for longtime coach Darron Rogers, who has a chance to win more than 500 games at Westlake, were forgotten for a moment last May when the scoreboard displayed “Westlake 68, Pebblebrook 58” as a final. Usually cool and collected on the sideline, Rogers was overcome with emotion and gratitude on that day, falling to his knees while thanking his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and God.
Now, the beginning of the season is less than a month away (Nov. 12 is the first day teams can start the regular season) and the Lions will start the journey towards a possible repeat.
While some of his returning starters (Chuma Okeke, Daniel and James Lewis) were preparing for the 2016-17 season with trainer Anthony Witherspoon, Rogers spoke with Mobasketball.net about the team’s expectations for this season, the recent championship, what the Georgia High School Association needs to change and other topics.
How special was it to win last season’s title?
For me being near the end of my career and not having won it in 14 years, it was a very special moment. You don’t realize how hard it is to get back. We made the state 13 times out of those 14 years and we never could get that title and by doing it last year was extra special.
We were real blessed to get there and win last year in lieu of all the talent we had in the state at that time. Wheeler was ranked in the nation all year. They got upset. We played Norcross but were blessed to play them at Westlake. Then having to play Pebblebrook for the fourth time was something we were looking forward to because we knew how good they were. We were blessed and managed to get through that game too.
In the final game, you had your players hold the ball near halfcourt for three minutes in overtime and it worked. But you still want the GHSA to implement a shot clock?
That is something I’ve been advocating for but everybody else is against it. I tried to make a point of it when we played Norcross and when we played Pebblebrook. We just stood out and held the ball. I don’t know why they didn’t come out and force us to put it down. We were in foul trouble in the championship game. Chuma was sick. Raquan [Wilkins] was in foul trouble and Ronald Bell had fouled out so it was to my advantage to sit out there and hold the ball. If there was a shot clock, we probably wouldn’t have won the state. Well, I can’t say we wouldn’t have won it but I don’t know if things would have turned out like they did.
You are taking your chances but you are really not when you got the right player like Chuma. You got a 6-8 guy who can handle the ball like a guard and make good decisions with the ball. So at the end of the day, if you are saving it for that last shot and you are getting it to him, then you got more of an advantage and that is how we looked at it. We gave it to one of the best players in the state and he came through.
Would you try it again?
We probably won’t since everybody has examined that little segment of us holding the ball and been asked what would you do now? They are going to come out and guard us. That was a special season. It was hard to believe that they sat back and just let us hold the ball.
You have your top three scorers coming back in Okeke and Daniel and James Lewis. But your best defenders Raquan Wilkins (East Carolina) and Ronald Bell (Tallahassee Community College) have graduated and 6-9 center Michael Durr transferred to Oldsmar Christian in Florida. Are the expectations still championship or bust?
For us, every year our expectations are to win the state since I’ve been coaching. I’ve never had a team I didn’t think couldn’t win the state if we worked hard because our emphasis is on defense and whenever you play defense you have a chance. In South Fulton, we have a lot of talent and a lot of it tends to come to Westlake. Ronald and Raquan were our two best defenders. We could put them on anybody’s best two players and they could stop them–that was one of our keys then we had Michael.
If we can continue our hard work on defense, I think we will still have a legitimate chance even though Wheeler is very talented and Pebblebrook is very talented. We kept all of our scorers though. I just got to change our mentality to defense because Chuma led the team in scoring, Danny was second and Jamie was third. So our goal now is to emphasize the defensive end of the floor this year.
What are your thoughts on the newly realigned Region 2-AAAAAAA?
It didn’t change a great deal. The only big thing that happened to the region is that they added Wheeler. I don’t know why the [GHSA] added Wheeler being that we already have Pebblebrook and Westlake, two of the best teams in the state they know are coming back and just played in the championship. So why would you throw Wheeler in that mix? We never had Wheeler in a region. This is going to be the strongest region in the state. It might be strongest region in the nation because Wheeler is going to be ranked in the top 20, Pebblebrook probably will be ranked in the top 20 and we might be somewhere around there too. We will play our toughest schedule in the history of Westlake this year.
The Lions will also face Greenforest Christian, the defending private-school champions, this season in the Hoopsgiving Classic, IMG Academy from Florida, Memphis East and possibly Pace Academy in the Hoopsgiving Classic. Westlake will also compete in the Beach Ball Classic, Chick-fil-A Classic and Cancer Research Classic, and will play two games on ESPN.