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Fast-paced War Eagles surging in Region 8-AAAA
Chestatee High basketball coach Gary Barnes watches his team as they warm up during practice in the school’s gymnasium Thursday afternoon. The War Eagles are near the top in Region 8-AAAA with a key game against Johnson on Friday in Oakwood. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

The best decision Gary Barnes has made as the Chestatee’s boys basketball coach was to go to the extreme.

Struggling through a losing season two years ago, the War Eagles coach decided it was necessary to generate some excitement among the program and find a way to highlight the players’ strengths, if they ever hoped to be successful.

This season, since a successful Christmas tournament showing, the results of running what Barnes calls ‘The System’ are bearing fruit for Chestatee (11-11, 5-1 Region 8-AAAA).

The War Eagles scored a season-high 107 points in a win against Ridgeland, and had what Barnes says was their best night shooting in Tuesday’s 87-81 region win against Stephens County at home. Now, with just two games remaining on the region schedule, starting with Friday’s game against Johnson (18-4, 5-0), all of the War Eagles’ goals are still on the table, including making the postseason for the first time since 2007.

“We felt like we needed to play fast and generate some excitement,” said Barnes, who molded his system after the style that made Loyola Marymount University successful in the 1980’s. “I’ve been a half-court coach before, but I’ll probably never go back.”

The results are especially pleasing, considering the War Eagles finished 5-20 each of the past two seasons.

Chestatee is almost a lock for a high seed heading into the 8-AAAA tournament starting on Feb. 12 at Johnson.

The rest of the school has taken notice of the basketball program’s success.

“It’s been like a bandwagon for the basketball team here at the school, a good bandwagon,” senior Kelly Arthur said.

Practice alone shows how playing at Chestatee is unique. Drills are run full court with an emphasis on speed, with only 12 seconds to get off the shot. Players know they have to get it right in practice to keep up with the pace during the game.

Barnes wants his players to generate 80 shots and 40 3-pointers each game. He balances out the pace he demands with the ability to rotate 12 players in and out over the course of the night.

“Our goal is to run, shoot, trap and score,” Barnes said.

Chestatee’s players have responded to the way Barnes has shaped the new system. It allows more athletes to get on the court. And with a fast-paced style, it lends itself to more shots and scoring opportunities.

Playing sound defense is also a must under Barnes’ system. Arthur says that the biggest mistake a player can make is taking an ill-advised shot and not sprinting back down court afterward.

“We’re not as tall as the guys on the other teams, so we have to be able to outrun them and box out,” Arthur said.

Although a win tonight against Johnson would be nice for Chestatee, Barnes doesn’t want to put too much emphasis on one game since playoff seedings will all be hammered out during the region tournament.

Barnes is very clear in the fact that he believes Johnson is the best team in the region. After that, Chestatee is in a large pack battling for the No. 2 spot in the region field.

Even so, Chestatee still wants to win tonight to keep those region title dreams alive.

“We feel like Johnson is probably the best team in the region, but we feel like we can win,” senior Keelan Passmore said.

This week has already shown how far that Chestatee has come in the course of just a couple short months. The War Eagles’ win in region play against Stephens County earlier this week — highlighted by senior Jordan Degraff’s nine 3-pointers — helped make up for a 75-50 loss to the same program earlier this season.

Chestatee started the season with a 3-10 record, but turned things around quickly with wins in the Comcast Christmas Classic against Ridgeland and Chattooga.

The War Eagles’ only region loss was 71-69 against Eastside (13-5, 5-0) on Jan. 18. Despite leading for the majority of the game, and by as much as eight points at halftime, the War Eagles lost control late by missing all of their final six free throw attempts and committing a pair of technical fouls.

“We felt like we gave that one away,” Barnes said. “It was definitely hard to swallow.”

Chestatee’s coach credits his seniors Arthur, Degraff, Passmore and Blaine Brown for steering the program’s turnaround. Arthur adds that point guard Jordan Pulliam always makes good decisions with the ball.

Passmore feels like the program has certainly turned the corner after it lost seven games by five points, or less, last season.

“It feels good having a season like this,” Passmore said. “We knew we could do it.”

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