Two years ago, Will Delacruz saw the light after his Trinity Christian boys basketball team came up short in the GISA Elite 8 Tournament. A 30-point loss to Westminster-Augusta in Americus prompted the Lions coach to say afterward, “It was not what we wanted at all.”
Peaking at the right time is what high school basketball is all about, and how to get there.
It’s why Delacruz and others — most notably Heritage School boys head coach Joab Jerome and East Coweta boys head coach Royal Maxwell loaded up the non-region schedule with opponents in 2018-19 that would be the type of teams they would need to beat in the state playoffs.
At times, winning has followed, such as the case of the Indians’ impressive 15-1 start heading into Tuesday’s Region 2-7A game against Campbell.
Among non-region wins for East Coweta, now ranked sixth in at least one state poll, are efforts over Carver of Montgomery, Ala., a four-time state champion, and Starr’s Mill, which reached last year’s GHSA Class 5A Elite 8.
“Everybody we play, regardless of their classification, is top five in the state,” Maxwell said at the start of the season. “So we have to be ready to do the right things at the right times.”
East Coweta was pushed to the limit in last Friday’s last-second win over Therrell, a state quarterfinalist in Class AA, after junior Brandon Stroud deposited a loose ball to the left of the basket before the buzzer.
With its top five scorers all returning from a year ago and the addition of senior move-in Zac Hill from North Carolina, the move has paid off with the Indians’ most successful season yet in Maxwell’s four years at the school.
Getting to the postseason, however, is the next step after being denied in 2017-18 by Westlake in a first-round region tournament loss.
With games at home against Wheeler on Thursday and Pebblebrook next Tuesday, East Coweta will see how those chances are stacking up.
It’s different, however, for boys teams from Trinity and Heritage School, who don’t have the same hurdles getting to the state playoffs. In its move to the GHSA, the Lions are using the non-region schedule to boost its power ranking in Class A Private that will help determine state tournament bids.
“I look at it like 25 practices,” Delacruz said earlier this season. “I learned. You can’t get stressed out [on the regular season].”
Coming off last year’s trip to the GISA Class AAA semifinals, Trinity has gone 7-9, but with at least six losses to teams from larger classifications. Another came against Heritage in a rematch of last year’s Final Four matchup, which ended in overtime.
The Lions have earned some respect of a No. 9 state ranking in Class A Private (SandySpiel.com) despite a record below .500.
Among the defeats, Trinity battled Class 7A North Gwinnett to a 56-55 final, as well as ranked opponents in GAC (No. 2, AAA) and ELCA (No. 2, Class A-Private).
Heritage School, meanwhile, has done everything it could to offset a weaker GISA schedule outside of Holy Spirit. The Region 1-AAA rivals, who have met in each of the last two Class AAA state championship games, are again on a collision course to face one another at Mercer University’s Hawkins Arena in March.
Heading into the trip to Holy Spirit, the defending champion Cougars and Hawks were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, among GISA schools by MaxPreps.com.
Heritage’s non-region schedule has been loaded with games against GHSA opponents including Meadowcreek (No. 3, Class 7A), Pebblebrook (No. 9, Class 7A), Lithonia (11-6, Class 5A), Trinity Christian (No. 9, Class A Private) and Woodward Academy (9-7, Class 4A).
Over the holiday break, the Hawks traveled to the inaugural Emerald Coast 16 Invitational in Fort Walton Beach among a prestigious group of teams that included both Wheeler and Pebblebrook in GHSA Class 7A. In a 48-41 tournament victory over Oldsmar Christian, Fla., Heritage was limited to just six players.
The following week, they participated in Wheeler’s host Tournament of Champions while battling Lithonia and Meadowcreek, winning the first 68-64 and losing the latter 51-45, in respective efforts.
“Holy Spirit is really good so to compete with those guys it’s something we have to do,” Jerome said following Friday’s 84-36 win over Calvary Christian. “They’ve kept their poise. The schedule we’ve played is tough, especially where we are. But it gets us ready for [Holy Spirit] and everyone else in the league.”