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In 2009, Langston Hughes High School officially opened its doors in Fairburn, Georgia and began competing in basketball. Three seasons later, Rory Welsh gave up his associate and assistant coaching title at Lovejoy to fill the role left open by Darius Hodge, who moved on to Hiram.
This decision by the administration and Welsh, who became a head coach for the first time in his career, led to the best outcome possible last season when the Panthers raised the GHSA 6-A state championship trophy at Stegeman Coliseum on the campus of Georgia University.
Now with it being very close to the date (Nov. 18 against Class 4-A runner-up St. Pius at North Gwinnett in the Jared Cook Classic) when the Panthers step back on the court, but as defending champions this time around, Welsh carved some time out of his schedule to reflect on winning the title, reveal where the team drew some of its motivation for winning the tournament and voice his expectations for this season in this edition of 1-on-1.
At what point during last season did you and guys think we might have a chance to make history?
Going into the season we felt like we had a chance when we looked at our roster, We had a great summer. The chemistry was good. We had some new pieces that really helped us and other guys had gotten better. When we got to the meat of our region schedule, we wrapped off five wins in a row, lost a game then won another six in a row. I started feeling very confident in terms of the direction we were going.
Even with that being said, it was like we’d take a couple of steps forward and then we’d have small issues internally with our chemistry and with guys buying into the big picture. It was crazy but once we got into the tournament we felt a sigh of relief because we stamped our ticket. After that first game versus, Dunwoody we played so well. Khalil Cuffee didn’t play with us in the state tournament at all. He had some stuff going on that prevented him from playing.
[Cuffee, who is now a member of the Southeast Missouri Redhawks, averaged 14 points for Langston Hughes last season.]
The gentleman that stepped into his spot was senior Richard Matthews. He played so well and gave us exactly what we needed from an intangible standpoint. Once we won that first game, I was like ‘I like this bracket. I like the way we are playing.’ We felt like we had an honest chance if we kept the continuity and that was how it worked out.
Auburn freshman Chuma Okeke played a couple of seasons here at Langston before transferring to Westlake, where he won a title in 2016. Did the team get any motivation from watching him win that championship?
We did get some motivation. I’m not going to lie. We love Chuma to death. His sister is a senior here. We felt like we underachieved the year after he did leave. We lost seven games by three points or less and we knew why. When Landers Nolley moved in he filled that void and then some, we did get a little intrinsic motivation from seeing him win it and we got lucky enough to see it through.
During your championship run, Nolley, who recently committed to Virginia Tech, led the team in scoring, averaging 25 points a game. Now since he is back in uniform as a senior what expectations have you placed before him?
He’s an elite scorer, an elite talent. He’s got great size and is every bit of 6-7. He’s grown since last year. My challenge to him is I want him to have his imprint on every possession. Whether you’re the guy drawing an extra defender and making the pass to the open man; whether you’re grabbing the rebound and initiating the break; whether your stepping in and giving help-side D on dribble penetration; whether you’re knocking down shots, penetrating into the lane and finishing; whether you’re getting the free-throw line, I want you to have your imprint on every possession and challenging yourself to make your teammates better. Offensively, he’s gotten better, which is crazy, but he has taken his passing to another level.
Jaylen McCluney, Patrick Carter, Papa Samba and Josh Butts are the only four players returning alongside Nolley. So how are you preparing your guys for the pressure that comes with being defending champions since every opponent will be gunning for them?
First, we don’t want to come into this season with any sense of entitlement. We had a team meeting and we talked specifically about that. It was crazy because we only had one returning starter in that meeting. So among the guys we think are going to be on the squad, it was real easy to get that point across. I said ‘look you guys can’t walk around like when you show up to a gym teams are going to just bow down to you and not play hard.’ Actually it’s going to be the exact opposite. Teams are going to be gunning for you. We know we are the marked man. There is a big X on our back and everybody wants to hit that target so we don’t want to come into the season with any sense of entitlement.
This will be your 13th year overall as a coach and sixth at Langston Hughes. What led you to making this into a career?
I knew a long time ago I wanted to get into coaching. I was blessed at a young age to know what I wanted to do long term. I always had a love for basketball in elementary school. I started playing my first year competitively in fifth grade. I remember when I got to high school I had a great relationship with my high school coach who I still have a great relationship with today. I just remember coach had a nice house and nice car, and it seemed like he was doing alright for himself but the thing I liked the most was that he was in the gym all day.
He’s around basketball all day and being paid to do it. I started formulating that in my mind in 10th grade. When I starting playing high school ball and things started ramping up competitively and I was learning a lot, I would take my younger brother to the court with me after practice and make him do the drills that I learned. He was in fourth or fifth grade at that time and I started basically coaching him–that was my introduction. Me and him had a love-hate relationship because of it.
Learning how to teach hands on as a 15 year old by basically mimicking what I was learning from my high school coach, I knew right then that is what I wanted to do. I wanted to play as long as I could play and try to play college ball and everybody dreams of playing professionally at some level but I just knew at the end of the day I was going to do something in basketball daily and it was probably going to be coaching because I enjoyed it so much.
How did former Lovejoy coach Rick Francis help you along your coaching journey?
I just got lucky with finding a good mentor–that was a big part of it too. Without a good mentor you can’t be a good coach so he taught me the ropes. It was awesome. When I think about those years with Rick and how we built the program up, I’m just very fond of those memories.
What do you turn to when you need a break from basketball?
When I needed a break from basketball, I used to go play basketball but I’ve had a couple of knee surgeries. It’s been a rough go. I’m 38 now. My body has just broken down so I don’t play anymore but I ride my bike. I have a lot of buddies that are former players and had already transitioned to riding bikes for exercise and get away as an outlet. I started doing that two years ago and that is what I do besides family time. I don’t have a Wal-Mart bike. I got a real bike. Then I spend time with my daughter and wife since I’m on that chapter of my life now.
Do you enjoy watching the college game or NBA more?
I’m a college guy. I like NBA basketball. I follow it heavily. I’m in a fantasy league with all my homeboys I grew up with but I’m going to watch a college game over an NBA game at the end of the day. I’m not a fan of any particular team in the NBA. I like the Hawks since I’m from here but I just like to see good games. I want to see competitive games.
From an X’s and O’s standpoint in the NBA, they run a lot of isolation. As a coach, you just sit there like are you serious? Are you going to do this every play down? I like watching college basketball because it mirrors high school basketball but on a much higher level, and in terms of running different schemes and defense and various offenses and execution. March Madness is my favorite time of the year but I just like to see good games. It doesn’t matter what conference. DVR is the best thing that happened. I steal a lot of stuff I just see in a game. I got folders full of stuff.