Banks County's upcoming schedule
Jan. 29 - vs. Franklin County, 8:30 p.m.
Jan. 30 - at Dawson County, 8:30 p.m.
Feb. 2 - at Lumpkin County, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 5 - at Fannin County, 7 p.m.
Three seasons ago, Banks County coach Mike Cleveland put his trust in four young, bright-eyed freshmen to compete against the best that Region 7-AAA had to offer.
Since then, Zez Steeple, Zac Orr, Kendrick Simmons and Trevae Cain have let their play help validate their coach’s patience.
Combined with fellow starter Kahmal Wiley, a junior, the Leopards (19-2, 8-0 7-AAA) have opened up their second-best start to a regular season in school history, according to athletic director Jerry King. Banks County finished the 1967-68 season with a 27-1 record, reaching a state quarterfinal berth, according to King.
“When they were freshmen, they got a lot of floor time,” said Cleveland. “They were the backbone of the program. Throwing them out when they were that young was tough then, but it paid dividends.”
Cleveland’s young team hung tough through adversity, despite suffering a 5-21 season in 2012-13 before dropping the first six games of the next season.
It was during these years that the four starters bonded the most, according to Orr. Outside of the regular season, Cleveland said many on his team play in spring leagues together before returning to play “at least 30-35 games” each June to prepare for the school season.
“I can’t say it was easy,” said Orr. “It was definitely a challenge. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. It taught us a lot of lessons over the way, to build us to where we are now.”
These days, the five starters regularly play video games at each other’s house or populate the local recreation center to put up shots. Steeple says team chemistry has paved the way for Banks County’s success. Banks County intends to advance to the quarterfinals again this year, said Steeple, as well as avenging a 21-point loss in last season’s 7-AAA title game to East Hall.
The Leopards have already gotten off to a quick start erasing that memory: Banks County has beaten East Hall twice so far this season, including a 16-point win in Homer. Steeple, who Cleveland called “the heartbeat, the engine” of his team, scored 39 points in the convincing win.
“We’ve had a pretty bad taste in the mouth about that,” said Steeple, who averages 20 points per game. “Once we have that, I think we will want to go far, obviously. If we play together, we can go harder than that.”
As of Thursday night, Orr is just 36 points away from the 1,000-point mark and nine rebounds away from the 1,000-rebound mark. Should he reach the rebound total tonight at home against Franklin County, he’ll be the first player in Banks County history to record 1,000 rebounds. Steeple eclipsed the 1,000-point mark earlier this season, and like Orr, is picking up attention from local colleges.
Orr (12 points, 13 rebounds per game) said it was sometimes a struggle to stay positive during the team’s rough year. Cleveland said he consistently told his new players to stick with him “as a coach and as a program.”
“He saw something in us when we were younger,” said Orr. “He took a chance and that made us what we are today. I can remember him saying that things will be hard now, but in the next couple years, it’s going to happen and our time will come.”
That time is now or never for Banks County. With four highly-experienced seniors taking the court, Cleveland said his team is primed to make a strong run in the state playoffs.
“The gym is packed every game,” said Cleveland. “Most nights on the road, we have more fans than the other team. There’s a lot of excitement at Banks County. Winning helps with that.”