It’s a fairly common situation high basketball coaches are faced with before the season begins: Key players, often starters, are absent from those crucial early practices because of commitments on the football field.
The situation is more prolonged when the football team keeps winning, such as it was with Gainesville this past season. The Red Elephants won a Class AAAAA state championship, keeping their players busy until mid-December.
All the while, Todd Cottrell was staffing a basketball team missing nearly half of its roster and as many as four starters at a time. Gainesville was turning heads around state on the gridiron, and the basketball team started the season with a troubling 1-6 record.
The Red Elephants barely remember those days, because Cottrell’s team made a complete turnaround when the full roster was activated. Reassimilating the football players back into the lineup as quickly as possible, Gainesville made the sub-par start an afterthought. It went 22-4 the rest of the way, winning a Region 8-AAAAA title and completing its season with a spot in the Class AAAAA state finals.
Throughout the resurgence, the close calls and clutch performances, the biggest believer of them all was Cottrell. For his efforts, he is the Times Boys Coach of the Year.
“It’s a tribute to the kids we had in the locker room on Day 1,” Cottrell said. “They never stopped believing they were a good team, even though we didn’t start off as good as we would have liked to. They kept getting better, and that helped us build some depth.”
Cottrell knew his team was likely going to lag behind many of its opponents for a good portion of the season. Few schools faced the situation Gainesville did on the court, as a football team would only play into December if it reached the state semifinals.
During early games, the Red Elephants relied heavily on leading scorer Shaquan Cantrell, as well as Luke Maddox, Jikeese Ruff and Reed Tipton, all of whom were there from the first day. The football players hadn’t practiced with the team since the summer.
It left a small window of time for Cottrell’s staff to get those football players adjusted, but game by game it came together as the month went by. The Red Elephants defeated West Hall in their final Lanierland Tournament game and won two of three games in a holiday tournament they hosted. It left them with a 4-7 record entering region play.
“Some guys made some serious sacrifices around Christmas to help our team,” Cottrell said. “Once we did get our full roster, the camaraderie and chemistry and all the great things that you talk about in a team were very evident.”
Gainesville’s first game with the complete lineup was a 77-74 overtime loss to Salem, and everything fell in place soon after. The Red Elephants won 18 of their next 19 games, including a 15-game winning streak that included their run through the Region 8-AAAAA tournament and the ensuing Cinderella run in the state playoffs.
The Red Elephants’ lone regular-season loss after January was an 84-72 shortcoming against North Carolina’s Christ School, a team regularly listed in national rankings. By then, Cottrell had built his team to be successful.
They didn’t know good they would get.
“In the locker room after the game, the mood was a different kind of mood,” Cottrell said. “It wasn’t an ‘aw, we should’ve beaten that team that’s traditionally ranked nationally.’ It was like, ‘if we clean this up and that up, we have to be pretty good and maybe win our league.’”
Time after time, that mentality showed. From Cantrell’s high-scoring nights to Deshaun Watson’s sharpshooting from the arc, Cottrell conjured up different ways to beat teams at every level. When the state playoffs rolled around, Gainesville didn’t defeat an opponent by more than three points between the first round and the semifinals.
But the Red Elephants always knew how to win. After all, that’s what the football players had done before they returned to the court.
“When you do something like that, that success rubs off,” Cottrell said. “There was a confidence about them. A lot of that came from the experience they had. They knew they could make good plays.”
Gainesville ended up losing to Miller Grove in the state championship game, but Cottrell doesn’t consider the 2012-2013 season a disappointment despite his team missing out on another title for the school.
More than anything, he’s impressed by the versatility of his players, who certainly defined what it means to be a multi-sport athlete in high school.
“It goes back to what a special group of kids we have,” Cottrell said. “They’re a committed team, and all of them sacrificed. That’s what you like to see as a coach.”