Columbia and Miller Grove have more in common than state playoffs streaks.
Miller Grove has won three straight Class AAAA state titles while Columbia has won two in a row in AAA, and four of the past six. Both teams have accomplished the feats in similar fashion—with deep benches and the ability to replace graduated players without diminishing the talent level.
Columbia coach Phil McCrary said he makes sure he has a balance of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors to avoid having to rebuild every year.
“That way we keep continuity going throughout the program,” said McCrary, who surpassed the 500-win mark last season. “We approach it like we’re a semi-collegiate team because we don’t want to have 15 seniors on the roster.”
The Eagles return four starters and 12 overall from a team that finished 30-3 and had an average margin of victory of 29 points. McCrary’s reasoning for using 10-12 players per game is two-fold—first, it fits the Eagle’s up-tempo style of play; secondly, the playing time the reserves get helps them transition into starting roles.
“When the younger players are coming through, they learn a lot from the older players,” McCrary said.
Columbia’s returning starters are senior forwards Jarmal Reid, Jhaustin Thomas and Chris Horton, and point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen. Thomas led the Eagles in rebounding with 9.4 per game last season. Shamsid-Deen, a junior, already is one of the top point guards in the state and led the county in assists and three-point shooting.
Underclassmen Jay McClendon, Nate Mason and Kiair Couch also are expected to contribute, McCrary said.
Miller Grove returns three starters and has 10 players with varsity experience. Seniors Tony Parker and Brandon Morris, who signed with Georgia last week, return in the post. Parker, one of the top prep players in the country, averaged 17.5 points and 15.5 rebounds a year ago.
“We’ll still be strong inside and our guard play is very underrated now,” Wolverines’ coach Sharman White said.
Also Justin Colvin is back from a team that finished 30-1 and was ranked No. 6 nationally at the end of last season. The Wolverines enter this season ranked No. 2 nationally by ESPN and PrepNation.
“Our kids understand the task at hand,” White said. “It’s always harder [to repeat] the next year. The bull’s eye increases. When you have 10 kids who have experienced that, it bodes well for our program to get to where we need to be.”
Miller Grove again will have strong competition within its own region from Southwest DeKalb and Tucker. Southwest won the Region 6-AAAA title over the Wolverines, and lost in the quarterfinals of the state tournament.
“The problem was that game was the be-all, end-all,” Panthers’ coach Dwayne McKinney said. “Our kids have to understand that Miller Grove is not the state championship.”
The Panthers have four starters returning—Jordan Price, William Goodwin, Justin Hollimon and Kaderius Turner. Goodwin, who has committed to Memphis, averaged 18 points and 10.1 rebounds a year ago. Price, who has signed a scholarship with Auburn, averaged 19.1 points.
Stephenson in AAAAA, Decatur in AA and Paideia in Class A all are hoping for return trips to the state tournament. Derek Harper returns for Stephenson after averaging 19 points per game.
Other players expected to make an impact are Aquavius Young, who averaged 18 points last season for Cedar Grove, which finished
12-9, and Phillip Reeves of Arabia Mountain, who averaged 13 rebounds a game as a sophomore.