The sportalNews team spent time at Southwest DeKalb High School in Decatur, GA getting to know 2020 All-State point guard KD Johnson.
The sportalNews team spent time at Southwest DeKalb High School in Decatur, GA getting to know 2020 All-State point guard KD Johnson.
Getting to know Jaxon Etter, class of 2019 from Etowah High School in Woodstock, Georgia. Jaxon completed his junior year and burst onto the scene as a player to watch for next year after earning All-State honors.
Contributed by Rob Grubbs (@RCGJr226070)
In a generation of excess, many today are defined by what they don’t have instead of the things they do. While the destination is important, the journey is richer and more rewarding. Apalachee senior 6-foot-7 forward Derek Miller is on a journey as he nears his graduation from high school. Derek is a star for the Wildcat basketball team, but to define him by that fact comes up woefully short, he is so much more. While basketball is a big part and figures to provide the avenue for his journey in the near future, it is just one component of this young man who is extremely comfortable being himself, a trait that can never be taken for granted and refreshing in today’s athletes.
His senior year has been interesting to say the least. Gone is the only high school head coach he knew, Kevin Morris, who moved on to Jefferson High School and in his place, first-year head coach Spencer Bernstein. Add to that he is returning from a season ending injury last year and there were a lot of unknowns coming into the year. While the record is not as strong as they would like (8-10), all of their losses have been by seven points or less including three in overtime; they could easily be 12-6 or better with a few breaks here and there. But there is still a lot of that story to write, as Derek and the Wildcats have improved throughout the season and look to jell at the right time when the Region 8-AAAAAA tournament starts. But again, Derek is so much more than just the leader of an improving basketball team.
Derek was born in Peoria, Illinois, he says he still prefers the cold and misses it with his easy smile. He moved here when he was six, his father passed away when he was a youngster and the family moved south. His mom, Tiana and older sister, Saboyce, settled in Winder, Georgia. When talking to Derek and his mom, you can sense the closeness; they finish each other’s sentences at times and even communicate with an unspoken eye language. Tiana works the night shift and does not get to see him play usually. She keeps up with his games via text messages afterwards and even then, “He forgets to tell me, so I have to text him to see how it went,” she said while cutting her eyes towards him.
The special times for them are on her off days, when Derek cooks breakfast for her and they enjoy the opportunity to share the moment. His specialty is waffles, they are good he said. Tiana almost glows when she talks about Derek, but not just about his athletic prowess, but because of who he is and how he is becoming a man right before her eyes. If success in life for a man is predicated on the amount of love and prayer invested in him by his mother, then Derek is in good shape.
And Derek is there for her as well. When she faced major health scares in the past two years, Derek became the son/nurse, they are family and they stick close, which is all they know. Success is born in the tight knit fabric of family and Tiana and Derek are a testimony to that.
Derek’s sister, Saboyce, five years his senior, left a great legacy at Apalachee. Quite the basketball player herself, she reached the 1,000-point threshold in her career and signed a scholarship to play college ball at Emanuel College in Franklin Springs, Georgia after she graduated in 2012. She held the Apalachee High School girls shot-put record with a throw of 34-2.5 until 2016 when current junior Nakia Hooks, another basketball player, took the honors. Derek’s conversation was light-hearted as we talked, but when it came to his sisters’ influence, he suddenly got serious. “I remember – I was in middle school and was not playing basketball and she would go outside to play and I would go with her. Even though she was with her older friends, she treated me with respect, she treated me like I was someone. That changed me. Her attitude towards me changed how I saw myself. I wanted to be like her.”
Saboyce lives in Illinois now and the gym she starred in is now under her brother’s watch, but as a player who scored often – she once took 50 shots in a game against Clarke Central – her biggest current contribution is the assist she provided by helping the in development of Derek.
In today’s microwave environment of developing the basketball talents of youngsters, the norm is for players to enter to the competitive grind of club basketball around age 9 or 10. For those who want to go big time, the prevalent thought is you play year-round at the highest level. From this, skills are honed but more importantly, players become known to the college recruiters before ever entering high school. While the current stars of the Class of 2018 were spending their summers traveling to gyms all around the state, Derek took a different path; he developed his music. Before Saboyce drug him outside to play hoops, he was at home with his drum set. Music was his oasis and playing in the praise band at his church was his arena to be seen.
To this day, he still plays the drums at Grace Missionary Baptist Church. The Pastor there, Robert Ballard has been his mentor since he was in the fourth grade. Coincidently, Rev. Ballard is also the PA announcer for Apalachee basketball, so he gets to see both sides of Derek, the music and the basketball. Ballard shared, “Derek is really an exceptional young man. Whether it is his athletic or musical abilities, it is clear to see he is truly gifted. But his greatest gifts are his ability to connect with people regardless of age, interests or skin color. Everyone loves him and sees him as their own. The school cafeteria workers adore him because he is one of the few students that give them hugs and tells them thank you.”
Tiana said it best, “He is a well-rounded young man, he has a love for people and people are drawn to him. He lost his father at an early age and I think that is a big reason for him loving people.” It doesn’t take long to be around Derek to sense that about him.
Last season, the Apalachee Wildcats, led by two senior All-Region guards, were holding onto third-place in the region. On January 20, 2017, Derek scored 21 points as the Wildcats held off rival Winder-Barrow. In early February, with the tournament coming up, Derek suffered a season-ending knee injury. While there was physical pain for the injury, the mental strain was tough too. His jovial, whimsical demeanor turned very serious during the conversation. He shared, “While I was hurting, it was tough because I felt like I let my teammates down. It took a long time for me to get over that.”
The Wildcats lost their final four games of the 2016-17 season, including twice against Winder-Barrow and came up short in their goal to make the state tournament. It is easy to see that experience left mixed emotions on Derek and he has wrestled with those feelings a lot over the past 12 months. While the pain is gone, the desire to move past the experience mentally is evident.
A tour of the Apalachee High School student parking lot is like many of the affluent schools in the metro-Atlanta area, big trucks and nice cars. But for Derek, game day starts on the school bus. Tiana gets off work around 3:15 a.m. and is asleep when it’s time for him to head to school. But as in all the other aspects of his life, Derek uses the time on the bus to begin preparation for the game, “I start the day with my music,” he offered, “I listen to different things, it always starts my routine and gets me ready.”
After school, when the JV and 9th grade games start, you will find the star forward in the concession stand making fries and hot dogs, he loves serving and being around people, it is where he is most comfortable.
Once it’s game-time, Derek is mentally at peace, no moment is too big for him. Coach Bernstein says of Derek, “He is a physical specimen, he has unbelievable stamina and he is fast and never shows fatigue on the court.” When asked what he thinks when he gets the ball, he dead-panned, “Four things, in this order; dunk, hook shot, pass or get fouled.” His dunks are what the fans wants to see. Against Banks County earlier this season, Derek had an exceptional flush that jolted the crowd. He said, “I could feel the rush of energy from the crowd, it was an exciting moment.” While he may be a late bloomer to the game, he has no problem thinking like a big man.
In terms of the professional game, his favorite player is Russell Westbrook, “I admire the way he runs the floor, but I really like the way he hypes up his teammates. I want to be like that. Everyone on the team is my teammate and I want to make them better. “
Derek has come back strong from the injury, he is currently averaging 15.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. His career field goal percentage sits at 55%, he is a three-year starter and has improved each year. While he may have gotten a late start, his passion for the game burns hotter that any five-star. His immediate goal is to push the Wildcats to the state tournament and finish high, but then the curtain on his high school career will close.
But that will not be the ending, it will just be a new chapter. Derek just wants a chance to play at the next level, he and his coaching staff are working towards that goal. Coach Bernstein summed it up, “I wish I had a team full of Dereks, he is that special. If I am a college coach, I want Derek on my team. I know he can play at the next level, there is no doubt in my mind. We just need to get him the looks, we need coaches to come out and experience Derek’s game firsthand.”
When that goal becomes a reality in Derek’s life, there will be a new chapter to write in this story, but for now, Derek is just happy to be Derek, to spend a few more mornings making waffles for Tiana and being a great friend to those at Apalachee High School. While many want to move on to the next level, Derek has the unique ability to just enjoy the moment and soak it all in. It’s a lesson that Derek can teach us all.
There have been two aspects synonymous with Sequoyah Lady Chiefs basketball over the past three, now going on four years; wins and Alyssa Cagle. It could be argued that winning and Alyssa Cagle could go hand-in-hand with each other, something that Coach Derrick DeWitt would not argue.
“She is definitely an anchor; an insurance policy and she exemplifies what Sequoyah basketball is all about,” said DeWitt of Cagle of who is first in her class and on pace to become valedictorian of the 2018 Sequoyah graduating class.
While Cagle has strived both on the hardwood and in the classroom over her first three years, it has not come without adversity.
“The first week in January I broke my nose in a game against Harrison,” explained Cagle. “I had surgery a couple days later and then I came back from the surgery about a week later and wore a mask. Then my second game back, I tore my ACL on January 21st against Cherokee.”
The Lady Chiefs would lose to rival Cherokee 52-49 and see a 14-5 start to the year finish 5-5 over the last 10 games of the season including a three-game losing streak capped by a 59-51 loss in the first round of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs at Winder-Barrow while Cagle was forced to watch from the sidelines with her team-best 12.4 points, 2.4 assists and 2.8 steals per game unable to make a difference.
“I was MVP of my team, so me going down was a huge thing for my team. I’ve always been that kind of person that leads by example so it was hard to provide that guidance for the team, whatever they needed, when I couldn’t physically be on the court,” said Cagle of how difficult it was to watch a promising season derail by injuries. “It was just hard watching them. It just kind of hits home.”
It was also especially tough for DeWitt, who has helped groom Cagle from Day 1 when he thrusted her into a starting role and has seen her blossom into one of the best pound-for-pound point guards in Georgia.
“As a supporter and a believer of her talent as a fan, I was just sad to see her go down late in the year like that,” said DeWitt. “I was sad for her because when she broke her nose, she wanted to stay in the game and she was like ‘no, I’m finishing this game’ and I was like you can’t, your nose is bent. She’s just a warrior, she doesn’t want anything to get in her way. She doesn’t want to let her teammates down. She is very motivated to get to the next level.”
A first-round loss for Cagle’s Lady Chiefs was a first in three years. As a freshman, Cagle helped Sequoyah to an Elite Eight berth where they lost on a buzzer beater to Stephenson, 55-53, a game in which Cagle dropped in 12 points and five assists. In 2015-16 as a sophomore, the Lady Chiefs took a step further and advanced to the Final Four where they ran out of energy and fell to Southwest DeKalb 55-47. Both Stephenson and Southwest DeKalb went on to win the state championship after clearing the Sequoyah hurdle.
Since Cagle has joined the Sequoyah varsity roster, the Lady Chiefs are 71-21. She has been on the forefront along with Coach DeWitt of the renaissance of Sequoyah basketball, a girls program which won the state title in Georgia’s largest classification back in 1994 & 1996.
With still a final year of eligibility remaining, Cagle hasn’t wasted anytime in getting her body ready to be able to write the final chapter of her storied career.
“Typically, with any ACL injury, it’s going to take you a full-year to be where you were before you had the injury. Right now, I’m four months post-surgery. I couldn’t be doing anymore to prepare for the season. I’m going to come back at nine months, which a lot of people do,” told Cagle of her daily progress.
“To prepare for that, I work out about five to six days a week with a trainer in Sandy Springs, at a place called Exercise Bioenergetics. It’s a huge two and a half hour full-body work out. I’ll probably do this for the next year until I go off to college, even after I begin playing again.”
Cagle will begin practicing again in September, but won’t be at full speed until the nine-month mark.
Once Cagle returns to the floor, she will be surrounded by familiar faces as Sequoyah graduates just one senior from their 19-10 roster. With the Lady Chiefs’ primary ballhandler on the sidelines for the final 10 games of the season, it gave the rest of the team a chance to step up and benefit from their newfound roles.
“I think my absence is going to better us in the long run. For the past three years, I have been the sole ballhandler. There are no other ballhandlers on our team. So without me, a lot of the girls have stepped up, which next year that will definitely pay off because we will have more ballhandlers with more experience being alone without me out there. Whenever I return, hopefully we’ll be a better team than we were last year.”
As the days get shorter and shorter until Cagle’s return to the floor for her senior season, as does her time to pick up scholarship offers and decide what to do with her life after her time in Hickory Flat is complete.
“It’s been difficult now that I hurt my knee. A lot of coaches want to see me play again, but the schools I am talking to right now are Wofford, Jacksonville State, Stony Brook, Stetson, Samford, Georgia College, and Georgia State.
“I’m interested in anywhere,” continued Cagle. “I definitely want to play basketball in college.”
On June 15, Georgia College offered Cagle a full-ride.
With an immaculate academic background, a strong work ethic and desire to be the best, DeWitt believes Cagle will find the right fit in college.
“If you want a floor general, someone who knows the situation, knows how to call the right play, how to finish late in the shot clock, how to find the hot hand, a player who doesn’t get tired, that’s a student of the game and is a quality character; she’s not a gamble on any level,” expressed DeWitt. “She can thrive in Division II or Division I, she’s all about her academics and athletics and she’s focused on having basketball be her gateway.
“Being probably our valedictorian, she’s going to have the run of the mill as far as what school she wants to attend. Is she a gamble? No. She’s very coachable. She’ll do what’s best for the team, she’s selfless and she’s a leader by example.”