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Posted: Thursday, February 11th 2010 at 3:06pm

Red Elephants have come a long way -- hope to go further

By Morgan Lee Editor
click to enlarge
Blake Sims drives by an East Hall defender in a game earlier this season.
GAINESVILLE -- Just about three months have eclipsed since the start of the prep basketball season, but that span might as well be light years for the Ganesville High boys.

At the start of the New Year, a month into the season, the Red Elephants were just 2-6.

Earlier this week Gainesville clinched the top spot in Region 7B-AAA and a bye in the first round of next week’s 7-AAA tournament. The Red Elephants are also 11-2 since Jan. 1, losing only against the No. 4 team in Class A, Wesleyan, and at arch-rival East Hall.

So what changed?

The simple answer is numbers.

“It was about mid-January before we got everybody back and healthy and into the swing of things,” said Red Elephants coach Todd Cottrell, whose team missed a few key players early in the season due to a lengthy football campaign for the Red Elephants.

In fact, the squad’s top two leading scorers, guard Blake Sims and forward A.J. Johnson, both played key roles in leading Gainesville’s gridiron stars to the Class AAA title game and weren’t even available until mid-December.

But dig deeper and you'll see that the addition of two players is far from the sole reason the Red Elephants are red hot on the hardwood. And Cottrell has another word for why his team is back at the top of the 7B-AAA standings.

“The competitiveness on this team is unreal,” Cottrell said. “They just love to compete. If you told them we had a pick up game, or even told them we were going out in the hall to play checkers, they’d be excited. And if you’ve got that kind of attitude, you hope you can figure something out as a coach to make you better.”

Cottrell certainly seems to have pushed the right buttons, though he’s quick to shift the plaudits elsewhere.

“The assistant coaches here are unbelievable,” he said. “They never get any credit, and they hold everything together. We’ve got some outstanding players too.”

That includes several newcomers, who have stepped in to fill big voids left by a senior class that graduated eight members from last year’s 7-AAA champions and Final Four team.

Shaquan Cantrell, a 6-foot-3 forward, and Keyontra Harrison, a 5-7 point guard, have each played key minutes this season and shown the ability to handle varsity pressure. Meanwhile, junior shooting guard Quon Holcomb, a junior varsity player last season, has stepped up to become the team’s third leading scorer at 12.1 points per game.

“Every coach would say that during a season you’ll have surprises, and we’ve certainly had our share,” Cottrell said. “No coach depends on freshmen playing minutes, but that has been huge for us.”

Senior Chris West (10.3 ppg) has also played a key role, using his athleticism and fitness to play strong defense and log a ton of minutes for the Red Elephants.

And then, of course, there’s Sims and Johnson.

“Blake’s a very underrated basketball player,” said Cottrell of the Alabama football signee, who’s averaging 18.5 points per game. “He could be as good at basketball as he is at football. Numerous coaches have told me he could play at the next level in basketball. He’s just a special athlete and a leader too.”

The 6-3 Johnson, meanwhile, is a handful underneath the basket, featuring a muscular frame that makes him hard to box out and competitive attitude that yields rebound after rebound.

“He’s just a warrior,” Cottrell said of the junior, who is averaging 13.1 points. “Blake and A.J. are great teammates, and they’re just fun to coach.”

Yet as well as Gainesville is playing, Cottrell says his team is still far from a finished product.

“Our defense has a ways to go. And, on offense, basketball is a skill game, and we haven’t really gotten all our technique down,” Cottrell said. “We started about five weeks later than most teams, but we’re running out of time now, so we’ve just got to keep fighting.”

Yet attitude and desire is something Cottrell says he doesn’t have to worry about with this team, which wasn’t daunted entering the season -- despite featuring so many new varsity players.

“I’m real proud of the way the guys fought throughout this season; our players had high expectations coming in -- which is a great thing for a coach,” he said. “I’ve learned never to underestimate young men. I think they got a taste of success last season and wanted more. I’m proud of them.”

The time for "more" is approaching rapidly with the start of next week’s region tournament. And, thanks to their top seed, Gainesville can reach the state playoffs with just one win in the 7-AAA postseason. And. after the way things started this year, don’t expect the Red Elephants to start getting cocky.

“We won’t take anyone lightly,” Cottrell said. “You can’t in this region.”

Certainly no one will be doing so with Gainesville.
Associated Categories: Sports News, High School Sports

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