BUFORD — For three years, the members of the Buford High boys basketball team were subject to ridicule everywhere they went.
In the halls of the high school, their peers would point out their horrible record and question whether or not they could compete with the girls program that has won two straight state championships.
At the games, fans would show up to watch the girls play, then leave prior to the start of the boys game; a slap in the face to any team in search of some kind of support.
That’s not the case anymore.
Following three straight nine-win seasons, the Wolves (12-3) are finally getting some respect, thanks in large part to a new coach, a new attitude, and a lot more wins.
“I didn’t do anything special,” said coach Allen Whiteheart, who was the head coach at Centennial High for four years prior to coming to Buford. “It’s all the kids. I’ve been fortunate to have a group of players who listen.”
The players listened because they believed in their new coach. At Centennial, Whiteheart reached the Class AAAAA state title game in 2007 and his team was ranked nationally the following season. He came to Buford with a strong coaching background and a winning mentality, which are two things the Wolves needed desperately.
“As soon as he stepped in, he told us what was going to happen,” junior guard Kyle Kellam said. “He said we were going to work hard and we were going to win.”
Whiteheart said hard work is the “backbone of the team’s success,” and although he knows there were some doubters, it appears as if all of the players have finally bought in to his philosophy.
“All the hard work has put them in this position,” said Whiteheart, whose team is ranked No. 9 in Class AA. “The wins encourage them to keep working.”
Not only has Whiteheart preached hard work, but he’s emphasized the importance of team unity and chemistry, which are two more things the team lacked in previous years.
“We’re more of a family,” said senior Zac Lynn, a three-year starter. “We play better as a team and not individually.”
That family vibe was evident Wednesday, when Whiteheart canceled practice and sent his team to a local bowling alley to get their minds off basketball.
“That’s just one of the special things I do to get them to remember that being a kid is about having fun,” said Whiteheart, who didn’t attend the bowling outing because of a death in the family.
Fun isn’t exactly something the players were having over the past three years when they won two fewer games (27) than the girls did last year (29).
“We got down on ourselves because we didn’t have a lot of fan support,” Lynn said. “People would leave after the girls game and that took a lot of energy out the team.”
As the losses started mounting, so did the frustration.
“It was tough, especially when everyone at school is saying how bad we are and that the girls could beat us,” senior Jake Burnette said. “We started to get defensive, saying there’s no way they could beat us.”
Hearing all the negative remarks fueled the turnaround and is keeping the team “hungry and humble.”
“They’re humble in the fact they know what it’s like to lose, and they’re hungry because they’ve never experienced winning,” Whiteheart said.
How much the team continues winning depends on the players. While they all admit this year’s team is better than the previous ones, they know there’s plenty of work to be done if they hope to join the girls team on the bus ride to Macon.
“Can we improve? Absolutely,” Whitehead said. “We have a lot to improve. We’re definitely moving toward better things, but we have a lot of learning to do over the next few weeks.”
“We have to keep going because people think we’re pretenders,” senior Shaq Gates added. “We need to make the playoffs and show them they were wrong.”
The first step of that learning process comes Saturday against Wesleyan, the defending Class A champion. In previous years, the girls contest has been the showcase, but that might not be the case this year.
“We’re looking to beat them,” senior Alex Flagler said. “They’re good and we’re good.
“If we win, it could really make everyone start to believe the boys are contenders, not just the girls.”