Class 2A blog: All-region matchups define championships

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More than bragging rights at stake Thursday in Macon

On Thursday at the Macon Coliseum, Region 8′s No. 3 Elbert County Blue Devils (27-4) and No. 2 Rabun County Wildcats (24-5) play for the girls Class 2A championship at 1 p.m., followed by Region 4′s No. 3 Butler Bulldogs (22-6) and No. 4 Westside Patriots boys (27-3), with that tip-off scheduled for 3 p.m.

The element of mystique between opponents will be absent from this year’s title games. Instead, they will be rematches of region championships. In both matchups, the teams have played each other three times, and all four teams have demonstrable evidence they can win Thursday. The Wildcats lost to the Blue Devils 51-45 on Feb. 8, but beat them 51-47 on Jan. 21 and 47-40 in the 8-2A title game on Feb. 18. The Patriots lost to Butler 50-49 on Dec. 17 and 74-52 on Jan. 25 but beat the Bulldogs 52-38 Feb. 18 in the 4-2A title game.

Butler and Westside each have one title, with the Bulldogs’ coming in in 1966, and the Patriots’ in 1995.* The Wildcats and Blue Devils are chasing their first.

(Correction: An earlier version of this blog incorrectly attributed the 1941 and 1967 championships to the Patriots. A different Westside won those titles — Westside-Augusta opened in 1971, according to the school.)

Here’s a preview of the matchups for each championship game:

BOYS

For Westside’s Hunter, Butler’s Boddy, friendship transcends region rivalry

Some of the greatest rivalries in American sports are known for how much the teams dislike each other. Whether it’s the Red Sox-Yankees, Celtics-Lakers or, on a much smaller scale, Falcons-Saints, there’s some degree of bad blood. In the case of Region 4 rivals Westside and Butler, no such rivalry exists — at least among the coaches.

Patriots coach Jerry Hunter and Bulldogs coach Cervantes Boddy go back decades. Their bond is inseparable and they spend more time talking to each other about the drama television series “Yellowstone” than about their games against each other.

In the early-2000s, Boddy played under Ron Spry at Augusta’s Paine College. Spry coached the program from 1980-2011 and compiled a career record of 514-403, according to the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC), the conference in which Paine competed in and in which Spry is now a Hall of Fame member of. Years before, Hunter also played under Spry at Paine, and graduated in 1994.

Hunter was one of several of Spry’s former players who returned to Payne in the years after graduating to connect with the current team and offer mentorship. That’s how he and Boddy met.

“He’s a stand-up guy who’s always been who he is,” Hunter said.

“He’s a big brother to me,” Boddy said. “We talk all the time. We trade books with each other, we have the same favorite TV show — ‘Yellowstone’ — we both love cowboys and fishing, and we have the same favorite book, ‘I Came As a Shadow,’ by (Georgetown coaching legend) John Thompson. He made me read it, and I’m glad he stayed on me to.”

“Yellowstone,” which premiered in 2018 on Paramount Network, is a modern-day western that stars Kevin Costner as John Dutton, a Montana cattle-ranch owner who is often at odds with land developers and with those from a nearby Indian reservation. Dutton’s ranch foreman and right-hand man is Rip Wheeler, who has been loyal to Dutton for years after Dutton took him in as a runaway.

“I call him Rip,” Hunter said. “He refers to me as John Dutton. It’s a relationship where we’re close enough that we have love for each other, and have a mutual respect. We’re brothers from different mothers.”

From an outsider’s perspective, one would expect Thursday’s game to be labeled a rivalry. Boddy believes that’s a mischaracterization.

“To be honest, I don’t think there’s a rivalry,” Boddy said. “People will build it up that way but, we don’t hate them and they don’t hate us. As a matter of fact, after (the season) you’ll go to travel ball and see a lot of the Butler and Westside players on the same team.”

Boddy and Hunter prefer to think of the Augusta-area basketball community as one big team. On that premise, Augusta and Region 4 teamed up against the Atlanta area teams of Region 6 in Round 2. The Bulldogs traveled to Buckhead to take on top-ranked Pace Academy, winners of 2A last year and 3A in 2020. The Patriots hosted No. 2 Columbia, last year’s runners-up that spent all of this season ranked either No. 1 or No. 2.

The Augusta teams weren’t given much of a chance by some in media, but both won. Boddy noted that the Bulldogs losing at Pace Academy in last year’s quarterfinals served as vital experience for this season. That, and the team was locked into the mindset Boddy wants them to embody.

“One play at a time,” Boddy said. “I live and die by that quote. I first heard that from (Spry). It stuck with me, because a lot of times we’re guilty of of looking toward the weekend when it’s Monday. Tomorrow will take care of itself, so take care of today. We can’t worry about anything other than the next play. Then, at the end of the game, we’ll look up and see the success. That was the recipe — if we make a mistake we can’t dwell on it. We have to move on.”

Hunter also mentions Spry when talking of the Patriots’ win over Columbia.

“It’s no knock, but there are major differences in resources and talent pools to draw from (between Atlanta and Augusta), and you have to work with what you have,” Hunter said. “Coach Spry taught us that. If you have a lack of resources or funding, take what you’ve got and work with it, and when the resources run out, those can only take you so far. We build on the same work ethic.”

How the Bulldogs will defend Patriots wing Khalon Hudson, Jalex Ewing and Amauri Tillman, or what the Patriots will do to slow down Kedar Body and Kevin Glanton while limiting Malik Sivell-Smith’s opportunities in the paint — those are questions that will be answered Thursday.

The only answer we have going in is that this season’s 2A trophy will be headed to Augusta, and that’s all that matters to Boddy and Hunter.

“Everyone is a winner,” Boddy said. “(Hunter) is my brother and I’m his. So if he wins, I win and vice versa. If he or I win, then coach Spry wins and Augusta wins.”

Hunter added, “If the city understands, they know there won’t be a loser. So much has been done for both teams to get to this point. Yes, a team will lose, but fortunately no one will walk away a loser — just a team that lost a game. Losing is a mentality and some folks are losers because they’re not willing to do the work. Winning is an attitude. People only look at the first definition of ‘Champion,’ but no one reads the second (which defines “Champion” as an advocate or defender). The second gives you details. It’s someone who fights for an individual that doesn’t have a platform, or for someone who doesn’t have rights. We just took that mentality to the sport.

“People who win championships sometimes aren’t champions. You have to put yourself in front of someone who doesn’t have a voice.”

GIRLS

A rivalry more than 10 years in the making

The Wildcats have been perennially successful since coach DeeDee Dillard took over in 2006, racking up eight region championships — including this seasons’ — and a 2017 runners-up finish. Picking them to come out of the Region 8 as a No. 1 seed was the safest bet each year until last. That’s when an emerging Elbert County team broke out as sophomores, went 3-0 against the Wildcats to claim 8-2A, and came within a point of advancing past eventual-state champions Josey in the quarterfinals.

This year, the Wildcats are 2-1 against the Blue Devils, but there’s still one more game to be played between the two and now it’s the only one that matters.

Elbert County’s program is, at minimum, on equal footing with Rabun County’s heading into Thursday. The Blue Devils’ climb to prominence, and this Wildcats team’s ability to match or exceed the success from past seasons, has been more than a decade in the making.

“We’ve been rivals since I can remember,” senior Sophie Woodard said following Rabun County’s semifinal win over Northeast on Saturday at Georgia College.

“Six of our seniors have been playing together since they were 5,” Dillard said. “They won the parks and recreation state title twice and their relationships extend beyond the gym. There’s a special bond because of the highs and lows they’ve experienced with each other.”

The Blue Devils, with their nucleus now juniors, went 33-0 and won back-to-back region championships in middle school, coach Josh Jones said. By the time they were 10th graders, the Blue Devils were ready to challenge Rabun County.

Last season, both Dillard and Jones agreed, is when the rivalry reached another level.

“Before then, we’d gone a few years where they just couldn’t find a way to beat us,” Dillard said. “Last year they beat us three times and outperformed us in a lot of areas, and that’s what fueled the rivalry. Now it’s a date we circle on the calendar, and that makes playing opponents more fun, because the team is more invested in a game of that importance.”

“It’s definitely become that,” Jones said. “This is the third time in the last four years we met for the region title if you count middle school. You look in the stands and see the hand-made signs, and we’ll go back and look at film and see them clapping at our girls, so there’s definitely a rivalry aspect. I feel like our girls see this as an opportunity to get something back we lost out on a couple of years ago, and we feel like our girls will be ready.”

Jones, who took over the program in 2018 after serving as an assistant since 2003, is referring to the 2019-20 season, when the team’s nucleus were freshmen. After going 12-18 the previous season, the new Blue Devils improved to 16-10 but missed the state playoffs after being eliminated in the first round of the 8-2A tournament.

As great rivalries work, teams often take turns beating one another. The Wildcats and Blue Devils have played six times the past two seasons, and the Blue Devils hold a 4-2 edge. Game 7 will be one for the record books.

Both coaches acknowledge the challenge ahead.

“It’s going to be tough,” Jones said. “It’s all about who’s not going to let the moment be too big for them, and who executes better. Hopefully, we adjust to the new refs we haven’t seen before so that are starters aren’t sitting out for crucial stretches with foul trouble.”

“On one hand, we know their style because we’ve watched and played them the last three years,” said Dillard after being asked the advantages and disadvantages of playing a familiar opponent. “We got to know them personnel-wise. In 2017, when we played Laney (in the 2A championship), we hadn’t seen then all year. My girls were in awe and the about how good they were, and they didn’t know if they could compete. Whereas, with Elbert County, we know we can compete and we know we have a chance to win, but we also know there’s a chance we can lose because they beat us this year.

“Every game we’ve played has come down to the last 2-3 minutes.”

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