Riverside Military’s Shad Dabney couldn’t have imagined another deep playoff run would come so soon at a new school.
However, thanks to his thrilling go-ahead basket and 17 fourth-quarter points against Walker on Wednesday, here he is.
After a suspenseful second round-win in Gainesville, the Eagles are one of just eight teams left standing with a shot at the Class A private schools state championship.
Just a sophomore, Dabney has been here before. He was part of the Gainesville High boys program that was state runner-up in Class 6A in 2018.
“It’s nothing against Gainesville, but it was just time for a change,” he said. “I just surveyed my options, and I felt like Riverside was the best place for me just to better my future in both sports, football and basketball.”
Up next, Dabney is leading his senior-laden squad, headlined by Isaac Teasley and Khalid Duke, into the state quarterfinals against Eagles Landing Christian Academy on Tuesday in McDonough.
Dabney said he wasn’t keen on moving to Riverside Military, following a tour in the spring of his freshman year. The multi-sport standout had normal concerns about such a move. He was apprehensive about the rigorous nature of a military-based environment.
“(At first) I was like, this is not for me,” he said.
It eased some of the nerves having experience growing up playing at the recreational level with Teasley, who is also from Gainesville.
However that all shifted when he got to know the basketball coaching staff, headed by Marvin Latham, and the rising seniors who he would team up with to form one of the most talented squads in Region 8-A.
“I felt like if I came here I could really express myself more than what I could at Gainesville,” he said. “I just felt like I could do a lot of damage here.”
So far, he’s been right.
Adding Dabney was the final piece to what has already been a special season.
Riverside Military’s deep playoff run is the direct result of a program rebuild that Latham has been working on since arriving at the school five years earlier. Latham took over a team that had won three region games over the previous two years and was in desperate need of a culture change.
“We had to build a culture of toughness,” Latham said. “Never allow them to take a break. When they’re tired, push them a little bit harder. When they don’t want to do as well in class, hey listen, you’re capable of much more. Push them right to that envelope, on the court or off it, all the time. I used to tell those guys ‘Listen, we’re going to get you success kicking and screaming.’”
After a couple of good but not great years, Latham and the rest of his coaching staff finally came into this season with reason for optimism. Teasley and Duke had become leaders of the team and were entering their senior years.
“We thought we had some stuff coming back,” Latham said. “We knew with just Isaac and Duke that they would be a handful for a lot of people.”
When Dabney signed on, as well, things started to look even brighter for the Eagles.
Latham said he knew the team was a winner on paper, but he wanted to reserve judgement until he saw the group perform on the court. When the Eagles started the year by winning a tournament at East Jackson, both Dabney and Latham began to believe the team had a chance to do something special.
“You could see it,” Latham said. “It was there. It was just a matter of time, all of it coming together.”
“It just showed me that we have players that are willing to work,” Dabney said.
As the season wore on, things started to look better and better for Riverside Military. The Eagles won 11 straight games, tearing through the month of January and establishing themselves as the team to beat in Region 8-A.
As the wins piled up, the players grew close. Dabney joined Teasley and Duke as leaders of the team, forming a trio with athleticism that proved difficult to stop.
“I just felt like we connected very well, us three,” Dabney said. “We started calling ourselves the big three.”
Now, Riverside Military’s “big three” has the group poised for a run at a state championship, with Dabney leading the way.
His 15 points in the final two minutes of Wednesday’s game against Walker exemplified the culture of mental toughness Latham has worked to instill in the team. And whether or not the Eagles beat ELCA next week to advance to the state semifinals, Riverside Military has already proved one thing this season — the Eagles are not to be taken lightly.
“We’re just letting teams know we’re not scared,” Dabney said.