The role of one of Gwinnett County’s teams involved in Class AA state basketball championship games today seems fairly clear in terms of favorite or underdog, while the other seems a little less defined.
That doesn’t mean the Wesleyan girls, who take on undefeated Kendrick at 3 p.m. today at the Macon Centreplex, or Greater Atlanta Christian’s boys, who tip-off against Calhoun at about 4:45, really take much stock in either role.
On paper, GAC (31-0) seems like prohibitive favorites for its game.
In addition to having rolled to 49 straight victories dating back to last season, including several big non-region victories this year, and putting themselves in position to play for their fourth state title in the last five seasons, the Spartans feature one of the state’s top players in Isaiah Wilkins, as well as a fine supporting cast.
Still, coach Eddie Martin is hardly dismissive of upstart Calhoun, and with good reason.
The Yellow Jackets (26-2) have rolled through their side of the bracket with wins over Spencer, Westminster, Coosa and Vidalia behind a balanced line-up that includes four players averaging in double-figure scoring — sophomore Kaelan Riley (14.7 ppg) and seniors Austin Riley (12.0 ppg), Chandler Curtis (10.6 ppg) and Keyth Fightmaster.
“They definitely deserve to be here,” Martin said of Calhoun. “They’re a talented team. They may have kind of flown under the radar, but they still come from a school with a winning tradition. And they’re very athletic. A lot of their kids are more than basketball players, and they do a good job of getting everyone involved.”
Still, Martin and the Spartans also have every reason to feel confident in their own ability to win, with the 6-foot-7 Wilkins and 6-6 fellow senior Justin Lewis giving them plenty of size on the boards, senior point guard Troy Morrison running the show and sharpshooter Cam Boyd and athletic Eric Jamison adding still more dimensions to their attack.
“We’ve just got to go play like we’re capable of playing,” Martin said. “It’s like I told them. I’m not going to ask for anything from them that I haven’t asked for all season.”
On the other side of the coin, the roles for the girls title game between Wesleyan and Kendrick seem far less certain.
Sure, Kendrick (28-0), like GAC’s boys, comes in trying to complete a perfect season with dynamic leaders like senior Kahlia Lawrence (26.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 6.1 spg) and Deja Cheatham (14.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.2 spg).
However, it’s hard to look at Wesleyan (27-3), which is playing for its record seventh straight state title — and 11th overall — as an underdog.
Even with a particularly young roster that includes several youngsters like freshman Mikayla Coombs (11.8 ppg, 1.7 apg, 1.3 spy), Devyn Lowe (6.2 ppg, 2.5 apg, 2.0 spy) and Riley Casey, the Wolves have a championship pedigree.
And they will look to the more experienced players like junior Nikki McDonald (14.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.7 spg), seniors Keevana Edwards (6.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.9 bpg) and Landyn Duley (5.6 ppg, 1.6 apg, 1.8 spg) and sophomore Cairo Booker (6.6 ppg, 2.6 apg, 2.9 spg) to help uphold that winning tradition against a formidable foe.
“They definitely are the more mature and experienced team,” Wesleyan coach Jan Azar said of the Indians. “We do have some players who have been in this game before. … That’s going to be an interesting factor. They (Kendrick) definitely get after it and play hard. We’re going to have to play strong and not let their pressure get to us. It’s funny, it’s usually the opposite — the other team saying they have to not let our pressure get to them.”
The pressure that both the Wesleyan girls and GAC boys face doesn’t just come from their respective opponents.
Azar knows that keeping the streak of state titles alive is enough for her young team to deal with, and is has sent a message she hopes will alleviate any pressure they might feel to do so.
“The thing we’ve been focused on this week is to enjoy the journey not just focus on the destination,” Azar said. “Sometimes we forget to do that, and this team has risen to the challenge all season long.”
GAC faces a similar challenge, and the same one Kendrick faces, in trying to complete a perfect season.
And while Martin takes a similar approach to Azar, he also is realistic that the very reachable goal of becoming Gwinnett’s first undefeated boys team won’t go unnoticed.
“No doubt it’s in the back of their minds, no matter how much you try not to talk about it,” Martin said. “But we’re trying to focus on this one game. When it’s over, if we’re successful, we can let everyone else talk about that other stuff.”