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As usual, the high school basketball season in Georgia is scheduled to begin before Thanksgiving but under extremely different circumstances with COVID-19 threatening the health of all.
Therefore, the basketball environment will be very different during the 2020-21 season since the gyms won’t be packed with fans, everyone will be required to wear masks except the players on the court, the players will spend much less time in the locker rooms and many showcases/holiday tournaments will be tentatively scheduled.
However, the start of games will be unique this season since the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) decided to remove the jump ball to protect the referees, coaches and others close to the action, resulting in the visiting team gaining the first possession.
During episodes of the All Basketball Podcast, Langston Hughes basketball coach Rory Welsh, Westlake basketball coach Darron Rogers and Westlake girls’ basketball coach Hilda Hankerson joined me to talk about the upcoming season and all the necessary adjustments they will have to make in the coming months.
“I guess it’s some sort of preventative measure,” said Welsh of the removal of the jump ball. “I don’t know how helpful that is actually going to be.”
“Now we have to come up with a different strategy,” Rogers said. “Of course, we have a 6-8 athletic guy and you want to win that tip and try to score the first basket. Set your defense up and put a team under stress from the beginning but that strategy is gone. You just have to come up with another one but that wasn’t a big one for us.”
Hankerson, whose team has won the last three Class 7A state championships, will have to adjust her game plan as well.
“The GHSA has always been trying to possibly remove the jump ball because its always been a lot of controversy about how fair the toss is and I get that,” Hankerson said. “But we have a player on the team who can touch the rim so we look forward to that as the start of the offense whenever we can. It will be something we will have to get adjusted to.”
(The full interviews with these championship coaches can be found on Anchor, Spotify, Google, Apple, other podcast platforms and YouTube.)
After defeating Collins Hill in the title game last season, the Westlake Lady Lions extended their in-state winning streak against Georgia teams to an historic 90 victories in a row and have very talented seniors Raven Johnson and Brianna Turnage back for their final run at a championship.
“Definitely the expectations are high,” said Hankerson, who has won over 600 games during her tenure. “We still have two young ladies on the team who were on the first state championship team and we still have some pieces around them in order to play hard this season. You always go after the crown whether you get it or not.”
The point guard Johnson recently committed to South Carolina and Turnage plans to attend Virginia Tech next season.
“We are proud to have an athlete of [Raven’s] caliber on our team and to have a good bunch of kids that surround her that are capable of possibly pursuing another championship,” Hankerson said. “None of this is going to be easy. COVID is a major factor. You got to stay healthy. There are a lot of other variables beyond our control so winning this championship will be really different.”
If the Lady Lions do secure a fourth straight title, it will have to come in Class 6A since they moved down one classification and now reside in a region with Lovejoy, Lakeside-DeKalb, Morrow, North Atlanta, Tucker and crosstown-rival Langston Hughes.
Last season, the Lady Lions won the lone matchup by a large margin and the Panthers edged the Lions to prevent a sweep.
“It’s a game the whole community looks forward to,” Welsh said. “The kids look forward to it and they want to beat their rival. It’s one of the biggest rivalries in all of Georgia let alone metro Atlanta. When we play them, it’s standing room only. It sucks that this year we won’t be able to get to capacity crowds like we always have when we play them. The kids just get up for it. As a coach, you don’t have to motivate them as much to get juiced up for that game. Best believe we are trying to win that one. We’re not just trying to play in it.”
“Our goal is always set to be one of the top teams in our region,” Rogers said. “One of the top teams in the state. Whoever has to play us will have a serious team to deal with.”
The Lions plan to reach their goals with seniors Chris Johnson and Donald Davis, and junior Jalal McKie leading the way but not Dillon Hunter, who transferred to Ypsi Prep Academy in Michigan.
The Panthers lost leading scorers Patrick Carter Jr., Kasen Jennings and Josh Butts to graduation but junior guard Kobe Davis is back on the team along with senior Jordan Jones, junior Elijah Walden and sophomore Kyle Jones Jr.
“This is a team where we have to play as a unit,” Welsh said. “We can’t depend on one person to kind of do it for us all the time. I feel like Kobe Davis is going to be a leader of this group and he has the most experience out of anybody in our lineup. He’s started every game he has played in. This is the year he really gets to put his stamp on the program and kind of push himself to elite status in the state. We feel like we got enough to make a run.”
With coronavirus cases back on the rise, hopefully these three teams can remain healthy and not have to forfeit any games due to a virus outbreak. They are scheduled to meet with limited seating on December 11 at Langston Hughes then at Westlake on January 26.