This Region 6-AA rivalry features two top ten teams. No. 6 Greater Atlanta Christian has shown flashes of being a region title contender, but a tough schedule and injuries have left the Spartans at 3-3 early in the season. GAC kicked off the year with a 73-61 win against 1A-Private No. 8 Lakeview Academy, 73-61. At the Verizon Hoops for the Cure Classic, Brewbaker Tech (AL) downed the Spartans 64-53. After a pair of wins, they ran into 5A No. 9 Riverwood in the North Forsyth Thanksgiving Tournament championship and lost 51-40. That same Riverwood team handed No. 5 Holy Innocents’ its only loss of the season on opening night, 54-46. GAC enters riding a two-game skid after taking a loss and some injuries to Seneca (SC) on Tuesday, 80-67.
Leading scorer, point guard Brian Coffey Jr. and starting center Charlie O’Briant are both expected to miss tonight’s game. O’Briant suffered a bad laceration to his lip when he took an inadvertent shoulder to the mouth, and Coffey, who has been on crutches the past two days, endured a deep bone bruise to his right knee and bruised a nerve which may keep him sidelined for up to a week. With the injuries, the onus to score will fall heavily on Garrett Covington and Jacob Hoffman’s shoulders. Both players are capable however as Covington averaged 16.5 points and Hoffman 12.1 as juniors. Covington is a Gwinnett Daily Post Super Six selection for the 2015-16 season.
GAC took two of three against the Golden Bears last season, winning 58-49, losing 82-78 and defeating Holy Innocents’ 73-68 in the region tournament.
The Golden Bears opened up their season with a loss against rival Riverwood. Since that game, Brent Duncan has picked up his play and is back to being a handful inside. In a 61-60 win over Duluth at Holiday Hoopsgiving, the 6-foot-7 forward went for 30 points and 10 rebounds including the game-winning free throw with .1 seconds remaining. He, Cole Smith, Ibrahim Shabazz and Jules Erving make up for a nice core, with Harrison Cobb and Richard Surdykowski doing the dirty work. Holy Innocents’ enters on a three-game win streak, defeating Sacred Heart (AL) 64-62 and No. 6 SWAC, 61-46, along the way.
Key Matchup: Jacob Hoffman of GAC and Cole Smith from Holy Innocents’ have the capability to match each other stroke for stroke from beyond the three-point line. Smith scored 13 points when I watched him play Riverwood and has the mentality of a microwave, able to heat up at the flick of a switch. Hoffman also doesn’t shy away from the long ball and has been known for his clutch sniping.
X-Factor: Jules Erving has been tasked with guarding other teams’ best players, getting the call on De’Andre Ballard of SWAC on Tuesday and held him to 17 points. If he gets lined up against Garrett Covington, he will be sure to make him work for every bucket. Erving’s athleticism and size allows him to guard multiple positions.
In Class AA, No. 4 Greater Atlanta Christian has seven state titles to its name. After a 19-10 season and a second round exit a year ago, former two-time region champion as a player, David Eaton, steps in to try and capture the school’s eighth championship. Coach Eaton replaces Eddie Martin, the maestro behind numerous state championships, most recently during his tenures at GAC and Norcross.
With a new head coach in place, leading scorer Garrett Covington, Jacob Hoffman, Charlie O’Briant and Brian Coffey Jr. all return. Coffey, a junior, holds offers from North Florida, UNC-Asheville and Presbyterian already. When asked about becoming an upperclassman and playing for a new coach, Coffey said that learning how to play for Eaton has been an easy transition.
“So far everything has been running smooth. He definitely trusts me with the ball, so our relationship can only grow from there,” explained Coffey. “He puts his trust in me and I trust his system so as the year goes on we’ll be fine.”
Going from a veteran coach to a younger coach who has seen success himself while at Wando High School in South Carolina winning a state championship in 2013-14, there have been some changes in coaching style and philosophy.
“It’s not necessarily a big transition but it’s definitely not the same. Last year I usually ran the offense and looked for the open man first. But this season coach wants me to make some of the calls and make some of the decisions on the fly when I’m out there on the court…It’s basically having a lot more freedom to lead the team and have a say.”
With Coffey’s expanded role as a floor general, he feels like his leadership is ready to take the next step.
“They encourage me to talk a lot and I can sense guys looking up to me and turning to me for calls. I feel like they accept me as a leader on the team.”
No Days Off
Coffey and the rest of the Spartans will be challenged each and every night playing in the tough Region 6-AA which features the likes of No. 2 Pace Academy, No. 6 Holy Innocents’ and Lovett. Going up against some of the best talent the classification has to offer brings out the best in the competitive Coffey’s game.
“It’s definitely fun. You want to play against the best, not only to measure yourself against the best but just for the simple fact that it’s fun,” said the point guard who averaged 12.9 points and 5.0 assists per game as a sophomore.
Coffey received an early season litmus test against the defending Class A-Private state champions, St. Francis, on Saturday. The Knights boast five-star senior guard Kobi Simmons and Duluth transfer Anthony Showell, who together form one of the most potent backcourts in the state. In the end, the Spartans rallied from a three point halftime deficit to upend St. Francis 77-69. Covington led GAC with 22 points while Coffey added 21. For the Knights, Simmons poured in 23 and Showell paced all scorers with 24.
Does playing against highly touted prospects motivate Coffey?
“It gives me an extra drive. It should be a personal challenge to everybody because you’re measuring how you are against top competition. You should stand up to the challenge and not be afraid to play,” stated Coffey. “I like playing against top competition. It’s just a chance to make me more focused and more ready to play the game.”
When asked if there is one player that he enjoyed playing against or has his sights on for the upcoming season, Coffey mentioned two players.
“We played McIntosh last year. It got me going playing against [Furman-commit] Jordan Lyons. …This year I have to say Pace and Wendell Carter. We lost to them three times last year and I want to at least get a couple wins under my belt.”
This Is Sparta
Brian Coffey might be the lead ball handler for the Spartans, but he doesn’t power the offense alone. Garrett Covington a 2015-16 Gwinnett Daily Post Super-Six selection (16.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and Jacob Hoffman (12.1 ppg) are two of the team’s leading scorers and two guys he loves playing with.
“All of them are great. We are all closer from last year. We all trust each other; we have fun with each other and have a great relationship on and off the court. We are all the leaders of the team. We get practice going and pick up the intensity in practice,” explained Coffey. “It’s never about one person. I can count on Garrett to score if he needs to score or Jacob to hit a big three. We have a lot of people we can depend on so it’s fun playing with those guys.”
Coffey touched on some of the Spartans’ key pieces further in depth.
“Jacob is someone who can knock down the open three whenever you need him. He doesn’t shy away from big shots when we need it. We can depend on him.
“G [Covington], he’s our toughest player on the team. He brings a lot of toughness and intensity in rebounding and on defense. He brings out our competitive spirit.
“Charlie [O’Briant] competes too. He’s going to bring us a lot of rebounds and he’s going to set good screens. On defense he is going to play hard; everyone plays hard.”
After finding out what three of GAC’s biggest pieces bring to the table, I asked Brian to assess himself and let fans know what to expect out of the talented junior.
“I don’t want a main emphasis on one certain thing, I want to able to do all things,” he explained. “I want to be able to facilitate with my guys and score when I need to. But I really want to bring leadership and confidence to the team.”
Learning From Last Year
Crawford County, the defending state runner-up, downed the Spartans 88-81 in overtime to end GAC’s season in the second round. This year, Coffey feels that the Spartans are ready to take a step further and challenge for another state championship.
“This year it’s not just about one person. I feel like just our comradery alone can help us get over that hump, because when you play for each other and not for yourself you tend to play harder.”
Brian’s unselfish play has not only gained respect from his coaches and teammates, but has also piqued the interest of college scouts. His recruiting has heated up and with a few offers already in hand, I wanted to find out exactly what the recruiting process of a high school basketball player is like. I asked Brian whether the process was what he imagined growing up or a whole different animal.
“It’s definitely different. I remember when I was a kid I was just hoping to get a letter, but now I know that letters don’t really mean anything,” explained Coffey.
“The recruiting process is something cool to go through but it can be stressful sometimes. At the end of the day you do enjoy it. I never knew it would end up like this but I’m happy with my progress so far and so far it seems to be picking up a lot and I just hope to continue to get better and earn more looks.”
As a player with realistic goals of playing Division-I basketball, does it ever get overwhelming or add an extra pressure to perform? Coffey doesn’t think so.
“When I play in the games I don’t think about colleges or anything like that. I just focus on playing for my team and getting the W. That’s all I care about: winning and playing for my teammates. It’s never just about me, it’s about the team.”
Speaking about winning, Coffey thinks the Spartans have as good a chance as anyone to make a deep run into the postseason and challenge for a Region 6 title.
“We are capable of doing it this year. If we win our region it’s going to motivate us and start us going towards the playoffs. I think we have a good shot.”
October 13 was Gwinnett County Media Day for the upcoming basketball season which starts in less than a month. Norcross High School held the event in its Media Center and coaches, players and of course members of the media filed in. It’s rare to have as much great talent – coaches and players – in the same location at once, making the event one that couldn’t be missed.
To wrap up the event, three-star forward and rising prospect, Shiloh’s Josh Okogie, took the stage to announce that he is committing to Georgia Tech.
At the event, four schools were seated at different tables across the room, ready to give access to the media that would approach them. The event started around 3:15 p.m. and lasted till after 6:30.
Getting The Scoop
I had a chance to talk with a handful of coaches to figure out what each team’s outlook is heading into the 2015 season. With such a big county and schools as to close to each other as they are, one of the major storylines heading into Media Day was the movement of transfers in the area.
At least 13 transfers are expected to make impacts right away. One program that was hit hard by the moving van was Duluth, the Wildcats coming off a 20-9 season with two seniors graduating and key juniors Anthony Showell (St. Francis) and AJ Cheeseman (Collins Hill) transferring away for their final season.
Coach Eddie Hood kept a positive outlook for the upcoming season and even said there might be some “addition by subtraction” regarding the shakeup of the roster. Back is senior shot blocker Obinna Ofodile and highly-touted incoming freshman, 6-foot-10 Alex Powell, is expected to make a major impact right away. Hood described Powell as a high-major prospect that already has an advanced skill set.
Some younger players are going to be thrust into big roles this season along with Powell. Hood has worked diligently with the feeder program and has capable guys ready to log minutes. The Wildcats will have last year’s JV MVP Will Huzzie and Shiloh transfer and JV standout Brandon Blair, who both have an opportunity to make waves this year.
Over at Meadowcreek, new head coach Willie Reese comes over after leading Sandy Creek to a state playoff appearance two consecutive season. Reese didn’t get a lot of time with the program over the summer, but he already envisions the type of team he wants, stating that he “loves” big guards, something that coach Paul Hewitt was known for while at Georgia Tech. Reese said ideally if he could build a roster it would consist of all players ranging from 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-5 which could use their length defensively and pose matchup problems on offense.
At Greater Atlanta Christian, the Spartans welcome home alumni and former two-time region champion from back in his playing days in 1998-2000, coach David Eaton. The early 30’s coach is excited to be back in his stomping grounds but added that he isn’t worried about filling the shoes of the great Eddie Martin. Eaton said that he doesn’t really try to compare himself to Martin or anyone because, “whenever you try and measure yourself up to someone, you usually fall short,” in terms of each coach being different and having their own style.
Junior guard Brian Coffey is expected to have a big season and has spent his time training with specific and situational drills to get better, working on his strength and explosion. Three schools have offered the guard: North Florida, Presbyterian College and UNC-Asheville.
Collins Hill has added three new pieces in AJ Cheeseman, Chris Parks (Lanier) and TeShaun Hightower (Towers), but in attendance were junior guards Max Clark and JD Ozoh. Devin Watson led the team in scoring from his guard position last year, but has now graduated. Ozoh said he doesn’t feel any pressure to pick up his slack and said that it will be a team effort this year to get the job done.
Berkmar added two new starters to the backcourt in Zach Cooks (Norcross) and Jay Estime (Peachtree Ridge). Coach Greg Phillips says he has about seven guards who are all starter material and now gives the Patriots great depth. Big man Robert Hill, a Duluth transfer, is working to become eligible for the season.
Phillips said that he wants his team to run-and-gun with his great guard play, but it will all come down to defending and getting stops to enable a fast pace style. Senior guard Lane Foster will be tabbed as the team’s go-to defensive stopper on the perimeter, while Al Durham, a division one prospect, will be the team’s primary offensive playmaker. Leroy Jones IV, who was in attendance with Durham and Foster, is a true two-way player who can get buckets on offense and still give fits to opposing offensive players.
New program Discovery under Cory Cason, feels like they can be competitive starting year one. Cason, a former Norcross assistant, is excited about the chance to build a program and is constantly reminding the kids that “they represent the school” when trying to leave a legacy.
Jaden Stanley is a 6-foot-5 forward from Montana that has transferred in and could be an integral part to the Titans’ opening season. Kids from Meadowcreek, Central Gwinnett and Berkmar primarily make up the Titans roster, but DJ Young from Milton is a guard who could play a big role this year. Theo Benn is a Berkmar transfer and also could find himself in the starting rotation. Coach Cason foresees his guard play as being a strength in 2015.