A 2-3 start to the basketball season didn’t give Gainesville boys coach Todd Cottrell any reason to panic. Any questioning the Red Elephants level of talent after losing in the first round of the Lanierland tournament and then losing 2-of-3 games in the Wolverine Christmas Invitational, would have to be left to the spectators.
"We weren’t really concerned when we got off to a slow start," Cottrell said. "We were missing a lot of depth and experience early and just getting back into basketball shape."
That lack of depth and experience centered around the fact that half of Gainesville’s roster got a late jump on the basketball season after a run to the state quarterfinals in football. He knew having strong athletes from football playing basketball — Blake Sims, Juwon Jeffries, D.J. Allen, A.J. Johnson, Nick Johnson and Brock Boleman — could make any team a lot better, quickly.
"The fact that they’re good at football and basketball only makes our team stronger as a whole," Cottrell said. "The thing that sticks out is that they’re all competitive and want to win."
Sure, every coach wishes there was a wall between sports seasons to give athletes time to transition from one season to the next. But Cottrell is the first to acknowledge there’s not enough weeks in the school year to avoid any overlap.
Other schools had a jump on working with their players before basketball season began. West Hall had four of its starting five (Marquise Stephens, Shunquez Stephens, Rodney Gibson and Terrell Penland) playing football, but were back on the court after football ended Nov. 7.
West Hall (12-1) coach Warren Sellers says that having eight of his 12 players coming to the court from the football field helps build toughness. The only drawback with the overlap is that some games may have to get pushed back, but playing without a full roster gives younger players game experience.
"I think having a better football season at West Hall this year really helped," Sellers said. "And when those guys came out they hit the ground running."
No matter what school you look at, notable football players have to make the crossover to basketball. At East Hall, Kiante Young, Chaz Cheeks, Joshten Hopkins and Sterling Bailey all played football. Johnson’s Chris Henry, Beau Robson, E.J. Wright, Mick Shannon and Tevin Arthur all play both sports for the Knights.
In Gainesville’s case, possibly the only surprise was that it took a little longer to click than some would have expected. Gainesville rolled to an easy win against Buford in its first game of the New Year. Then on Tuesday, the Red Elephants (5-5) sent an emphatic statement of what could lay ahead this season with a home win against Class AAA’s third-ranked Franklin County, 60-39. It’s the same Lions team that beat Gainesville by 20 points in the second game of the season.
"That win against Franklin County just showed that we can play with the big dogs," Jeffries, a senior, said. "It’s a big thing with us not to lose at home."
"I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people this season," Sims, a junior, said. "It’s a New Year and a new team."
Cottrell was particularly mixed on the performance during Gainesville’s Christmas performance at Woodstock High. The Red Elephants only win was against Woodward Academy, then they lost a pair of close games to quality AAAA opponents.
"There were some moments you would say, ‘Wow those guys are really good,’" Cottrell said. "And then 5 seconds later, people would be thinking ‘Wow those guys are really bad.’"
But it seems that Cottrell remains confident in the depth he has with the football and non-football components to his basketball program finally meshed together. Gainesville expects to be able to depend on Sims, who was also the star quarterback for the Red Elephants, this season at point guard. Cottrell also says that Nick Johnson is an established presence at power forward he wouldn’t trade for anyone.
Gainesville’s coach doesn’t see any fraction with his program either over playing time. Will Maddox, Ty Redmon, Javez Warren, D.J. McDuffie and senior George Manomano were all depended on early in the season to hold down the fort, and will continue to see playing time with a full roster.
"I like having a deep roster with the fast pace we like to play," Cottrell said. "I use a 9- or 10-man rotation, so everyone is still getting the playing time that was before."
But any momentum during the regular season will be nullified if the Red Elephants don’t continue to progress during the subregion schedule. Cottrell says that the key is keeping their heads above water in a stacked side of 7-AAA, which includes East Hall, West Hall, Johnson, West Forsyth and his old school, Flowery Branch.
"Everyone is strong on our side of the region," Cottrell said. "It’s kind of like the Big East (in college basketball).
"Everyone is good."