Just behind her office desk in the Flowery Branch gym, neatly pressed into a commemorative frame, Courtney Newton’s old No. 22 jersey from her days at the University of South Carolina sits propped up against a wall.
Forgive Newton if she hasn’t had time to organize everything just yet since her move back to Georgia last summer: She’s been too busy leading her Flowery Branch High team (18-1) to its best start in school history.
“I’ve been so busy,” said Newton on Wednesday, with a smile. “We’ve just been hitting the ground running.”
Members of the Lady Falcons say Newton has ingrained a “family” atmosphere into the program since longtime coach Hazel Hall retired over the offseason. Newton, a Flowery Branch graduate of 2007, had just one year of coaching experience prior to rejoining her alma mater, this time on the sidelines.
As a freshman, Newton helped lead Flowery Branch to its first Lanierland title in 2003 before reaching the state quarterfinals.
Sophomore point guard Lexie Sengkhammee said the team immediately researched their new coach on the Internet after being told of the change of leadership last May.
“We all went out in the hallways and got on our phones to look her up,” said Sengkhammee at Thursday’s practice. “We were so excited to have a new change in the program.”
Here’s what the team would have found out about Newton with a quick Internet search:
• Averaged about 25 points per game, 8 rebounds and three steals a game as a senior under former Flowery Branch coach Angela Middleton
• Suffered and overcame three season-ending knee injuries between her junior year of high school and her junior year of college
• Completed a five-year career with the Lady Gamecocks (she redshirted in her freshman year), starting 30 games under coach Dawn Staley in her senior season
• Started her coaching career in 2014, helping the Lexington High Wildcats double their win total from seven to 14 in just one year before moving back to Flowery Branch
Senior Maddie Hetzel said the team couldn’t have asked for a better basketball mind to enter the gym.
“To see she did so many big things at South Carolina, here we’ve got this really good basketball player come to teach us something really special,” said Hetzel, a University of North Georgia signee. “Especially since she’s been to a place that all of us want to get to. ... Her basketball IQ is through the roof.”
Newton’s players have been impressed by her sporting acumen: Before each game and during most practices, the first-year coach will break down each upcoming opponent player-by-player, giving her players the same type of scouting reports she needed to memorize during her time at South Carolina.
On the first day of practice back in June, Hetzel said Newton stripped the game down to its bare fundamentals. Instead of “sliding” their feet to defend quick dribblers, Newton asked her players to drop, take a step and sprint to their mark, which allows a quicker reaction time.
It’s a direct homage to South Carolina and Staley’s SWARM defense, which has helped the No. 2 ranked Gamecocks to an unbeaten 16-0 record.
From that point on, Newton’s players did all they could to make a strong impact over the offseason, sometimes asking Newton to open up the gym on off days to get shots up.
“June was such an important month,” said Newton. “Honestly, I didn’t see much of the team before I got in the gym. I didn’t go in saying ‘I’ll change this, I’ll change that,’ but I got to know them, saw the skills they had. From Day 1, everything we asked them to do, they didn’t complain. It makes it a lot easier when you’re with kids who invest into what you’re saying.”
Newton is a loyal disciple of Staley, who she calls a “master of preparation.” The Flowery Branch coach said she was surprised to see how important mental work was at the college level. That became abundantly clear when she underwent surgeries to recover from three debilitating knee injuries in four years.
“She used her time very wisely,” said Staley on Friday. “When she was playing, it was a swagger, a confidence that she knew she could perform. And even when she couldn’t play, she was like another coach on the bench for the others.”
For a competitor like Newton, watching from the sidelines was never a fun experience. Still, it provided her the perspective she needed to see the game from a different angle.
“You want to do whatever you can to help your team,” she said. “You’re fighting and scrapping in the SEC. … The third one was the one that got to me. I had overcome so much at that point, I can’t let that get me down. I wasn’t going to let an injury take it away from me. But now, I was sit on the bench and watch from a different perspective.”
Her first coaching foray was at Lexington High, where she says she occasionally had to fight off the urge to jump into the game herself and help her new team make plays. Newton’s rookie year as a head coach taught her patience.
And when the “dream job” of returning to Flowery Branch arose, Newton knew she had to apply.
Since then, she’s built a team that feels much more like sisters in the Flowery Branch camp. Newton’s team regularly hangs out together after practice, building up healthy team chemistry on and off the court, according to Sengkhammee.
“I feel like (Newton) knew what we go through, because she did it herself,” said Sengkhammee. “It means a lot in a town like this, more of us coming together as a family. We trust each other more this year, and now we can open up more areas, more plays than we did last year.”
The Falcons are currently No. 2 in Region 8-AAAAA, with their lone loss to rival Gainesville. Flowery Branch will next travel to the Lady Red Elephants on Jan. 26.
Ever the teacher, Newton still has more lessons for her successful Lady Falcons team. Noticing that her players weren’t crashing the boards as quickly as she wanted, Hetzel said she made a point during a recent practice.
“The other day, we’re practicing an offensive set and (Newton) said ‘Stop, freeze where you are,’” said Hetzel. “We notice that all of our players are outside the arc and she gives us that look. We know what that means.”
It means that Flowery Branch is finally seeing the same success Newton once saw in her playing days. The Lady Falcons won this season’s Lanierland tournament and now players are dreaming of success in the state tournament. Flowery Branch’s senior class has never seen beyond the first round of the state playoffs, a goal that Hetzel believe her team can achieve with dedication through the region playoffs.
The statistics say the Lady Falcons are on their way: Flowery Branch has been defeating its region opponents by an average of 31.5 points per game through eight wins as of Jan. 16.
“It’s been a fun ride so far,” said Newton. “But we’re a family, no matter what.”