For athletic programs fresh to the scene, building a solid chemistry is usually the first step in the process.
Cherokee Bluff High juniors Griffin Neville and Palmer Weaver can tell you that while the boys basketball program is now closer than ever, it certainly had its challenges in the early going. But for every setback, there’s always that breakthrough moment.
Both shooting guards for the first-year Bears pointed to a summer trip to Panama City, Florida, that changed everything.
It was during a June basketball summer camp at Gulf Coast Community College, a place Bears coach Benjie Wood has taken his teams in the past and where he first met Rutherford High coach Rhondie Ross, now a close friend of Wood’s. Aside from participating in various drills on the campus, Cherokee Bluff scrimmaged Ross’s team at Rutherford High and one other high school.
In that time, the growing pains of a young program showed.
“(I remember) we had a real bad game, just awful,” Neville said. The effort was horrible.”
As punishment, Neville said the Bears took part in a grueling workout regimen on the beach the very next day. On top of running long distances, Neville said players ran suicide sprints through the thick sand while carrying a teammate on their backs, all in what felt like 100-degree temperatures.
But running side-by-side, battling those elements as a group lit a spark. The attitude changed within the team, Neville said.
“It created a bond that just brought us together,” added Neville, who previously played at Gainesville High for Wood. “We started playing well after that, because we had to.”
Weaver could attest.
“We had a couple of games (down there) where we started to fall apart, but we had to trust coach Wood, trust each other to get back on track,” the 6-foot-1 junior said. “We were all over the place. But ever since then, we’ve gotten better and better each day.”
Once strangers, Wood’s assortment of players — three seniors, eight juniors and two sophomores — have developed a blossoming chemistry on-and-off the court. It’s a ripe group that appears more than ready to tackle its inaugural basketball season that begins against Lanier Christian Academy on Tuesday.
“That’s all part of the process, is getting a bunch of personalities together and getting to know one another, developing those relationships and trying to mesh it together,” said Wood, in Year No. 25 of his coaching career. “But it’s all a really fun process to try to bring all that together as well.”
Wood seems to have that procedure down pat.
The Bears’ first coach said their focus this summer has been on the fundamentals while implementing a blueprint of what he envisions for the team’s identity: An up-tempo, hustle-driven brand of basketball that helped Gainesville High — Wood’s former team — storm into the boys Class 6A title game last season. Wood led Gainesville High to a 114-33 record over the last five seasons. He also has five state semifinal appearances to his name, two each with the North Hall boys and Johnson girls in previous stops.
Varsity experience may be lacking on the team, but Wood has been pleased with the progress made over the summer and during the team’s first official two weeks of practice.
“(Coach Wood) just knows the game of basketball very well, and he just knows how to teach the game, teaches us where to be,” said Weaver, who brings a combined two years of junior varsity and varsity experience to Cherokee Bluff. He gives us very specific roles. ...Everyday, we just get better with that. But he’s not just a good coach, he has a great personality.”
On top of building chemistry, it’s an opportunity for players like Weaver and Neville to see their roles and minutes increase as starters. The majority of Neville’s production came off the bench in his previous two seasons with the Red Elephants at Gainesville High. But the 6-foot-2 Neville’s resume in travel ball clearly shows his potential to be a viable contributor for the Bears this season. With his North Georgia Elite AAU team, Neville averages 23.2 points and 2.3 assists per game while making 55 percent of his shots.
Neville’s mother, Sonja, teaches at Cherokee Bluff and is also the director of basketball operations for the team.
“It’s a lot different from my role last year, but it’s cool having to learn to be more of a leader instead of just a role player,” he said. “It’s just cool to be a bigger part of the team and try to help us win more.”
Experiencing a baptism by fire against some stout competition certainly adds to that growth as well. The Bears inhabit a top-heavy Region 7-3A that includes three programs ranked inside the top-10 in some preseason polls — reigning Class 3A champion Greater Atlanta Christian at No. 1, No. 6 Dawson County and No. 8 East Hall.
“When you play competition like that, it’s just going to make you better,” Wood said. But for now, we’re just focused on us and trying to get better each day. “I think the kids are excited to play someone in a different color jersey.”
While Neville understands success doesn’t come overnight, he still feels they have the team to turn heads in Year 1.
“(Being a new program), we’d like to use that as an advantage,” he said. “We have a chance to come out and punch them in the mouth early, and show them what we got because we have been working hard to get to this moment.”