Staff Photo: John Bohn Berkmar's Yonel Brown (4) is fouled by Central Gwinnett's Justin Dewitt (12) during the fourth quarter of a boy's Class 8-AAAAA semifinal basketball game played Friday at Shiloh High School. Berkmar defeated Central Gwinnett 67-51.
Before this year's basketball season started, Yonel Brown returned to how last year's ended.
The Region 8-AAAAA champions' state playoff run ended before the Patriots could break into a jog, with a one-point first-round loss to Roswell, the No. 4 seed from Region 6-AAAAA.
"We learned a lot," Berkmar's Kennesaw State-bound senior said at the time. "We learned to not look at who we are playing, not worry about what the other team is doing, worry about what we can do, what we do day-in and day-out."
Even head coach Greg Phillips admitted to using the loss as motivation this past offseason.
"They have all been reminded of that score," Phillips said all those months ago. "Yonel has been one of the leaders in reminding them that everything we focus on is to No. 1 make it back (to state) and No. 2 to be prepared to not let that happen again."
Step one, complete.
The Patriots are again the No. 1 seed from Region 8-AAAAA. They get another home game and another No. 4 seed.
But Norcross is a different No. 4 seed.
The defending Class AAAAA state champions are more than a scrappy bunch of bees. The Blue Devils bounced in and out of the state's top 10 much of the season, played a national schedule and have a week to get healthy. They also happen to be the team Phillips helped coach before taking the head job at Berkmar.
"It's going to be a battle," Phillips said this week. "It's going to be a Final Four matchup."
The matchup may warrant a larger stage, but this is still a first-round game, just like last year, and Berkmar is preparing the same way.
The Patriots have spent this week resting and healing after the 8-AAAAA run. They watched plenty of film. Tried not to lose the momentum of last week's success. Tried not to revert to last year's result.
"It's been brought up, I can tell you that much," Phillips said of last season. "Not only the coaching staff, but the players.
"But we said this all year, we want to play the best teams."
Sure Norcross is a tough draw and last year's ending came abruptly, but the Patriots are back-to-back 8-AAAAA champions, a feat worthy of respect.
"I still say, once you get to the state tournament it's about who you draw and your matchups," Phillips said. "The region tournament is the hardest to win. The teams know each other so well, it makes it extremely difficult to win. Every year our goal is to compete for a region championship, year-in and year-out."
And defending the title took a team effort, beyond the usual standouts like Brown and Tim Rowe.
Senior Tyler Rogers came off the bench in the region tournament when Rowe found foul trouble and added to his role built during the season.
"(Rogers), honestly, deserved to start all year," Phillips said. "He's understood his role, never complained and been willing to come off the bench. Tyler comes off the bench and gives us energy."
Then there was junior C.J. Foster, who sacrificed scoring for defense.
"We don't win at Shiloh the first time (without Foster)," Phillips said. "You don't win back-to-back region championships without those role players stepping up."
But now it's state tournament time and Berkmar would rather it last a bit longer this time and for Phillips it's a fine line between preparation and enjoying the biggest games of the year.
"A lot of times, 10 years from now, the guys aren't going to remember who we played," he said. "They are going to remember the time we spent together."