In its first region game of the season, Dawson County lost a heartbreaker, 58-56, to Rabun County.
And while a 12-2 start before that game would normally be considered the foundation to a great season, Tigers coach Thad Burgess said that loss may have been the moment that helped the team erupt down the stretch.
“I told them in the locker room that night that I saw the team we could be,” Burgess said.
As it turned out, that team pulled off a miraculous run down the stretch, upsetting perennial powers East Hall (in the Region 8-AA tournament semifinals) and Buford (in the second round at state) en route to a state quarterfinals appearance and its first region title since 1969.
Along the way, it captured the hearts of the community, which sent fans in record numbers to the team’s games.
For his role in leading Dawson County (25-7) to those heights, Burgess has been named The Times Area Boys Coach of the Year.
Burgess noted that it was hard for him to even explain the run his team made at the end of the season.
“We just had a group that came together at the right time, I guess,” he said.
Perhaps. But it also, undoubtedly, had plenty to do with the style with which Burgess encouraged his team to play.
That style included a matchup-zone defense and a possession-based offense. While many teams around the area and beyond thrive on run-and-gun, Burgess’ team slowed down the pace and made every possession on offense count.
“The matchup-zone was the equalizer,” Burgess said. “It allowed us to set the tempo. We never let the games get to quick.”
Allowing the games to get too quick was something Dawson County could not afford.
While many teams run eight or nine players deep, the Tigers generally used just their five starters throughout the games.
“Our margin of error was very small,” Burgess said. “We knew how much bigger, deeper and more athletic some of our opponents were, so we just did all the little things very well.”
Those little things included rebounding and preventing opponents from scoring easy baskets on fast breaks.
“I think we outrebounded nearly every one of our opponents,” Burgess said.
Tyler Dominy, the team’s leading scorer, noted the importance of the smaller aspects of the game and taking advantage of every possession.
“That’s our gameplan,” he said. “We make every possession count, and we make the other team play defense. If we can do that and set the pace, we always felt like we’d have a good shot to win the game.”
That gameplan had its negative points, of course. Burgess said that, while it allowed his team to have a shot in nearly every game, it also allowed opponents to stay in the game.
“The question was always whether we could score enough,” Burgess said. “But our guys were confident and felt good in that gameplan.”
And that confidence only grew throughout the season.
“They started to handle the pressure really well,” he said. “That was big for us.”
Dominy noted that the progress the team made was attributable to Burgess’ style of coaching.
“He’s an intense coach,” he said. “I love that. You love to see that he’s as invested in it as we are. It’s fun to play for a guy like that.”
All five starters will return next season for Dawson County, but neither Burgess nor his team are ready to look that far ahead.
“We’re just now letting it all set in,” he said.