Class 5A blog: What to watch in first round

William Witherspoon has led the Walnut Grove boys to a state playoff berth in his second season as head coach.
William Witherspoon has led the Walnut Grove boys to a state playoff berth in his second season as head coach.

Credit: Stan Awtrey

Credit: Stan Awtrey

Walnut Grove coach William Witherspoon went to the state tournament as a player. He was part of coach David Boyd’s Berkmar behemoth that won back-to-back championships in 2000 and 2001. Now, in his second year as head coach at Walnut Grove, Witherspoon is proud that his players have qualified for the playoffs.

“It’s a helpless feeling sometimes but it’s fun,” Witherspoon said. “During my career, I got a chance to do a lot of stuff. It’s fun to watch them get those breakthrough moments and experience success. It’s one of those times as a coach where you get to see the jubilation on their faces when they see how all the preparation paid off. It was really gratifying for me as a coach to be their coach.”

Walnut Grove beat Walton County rival Loganville in the Region 8 playoffs to guarantee the school’s first trip to the playoffs since 2016. It also atoned for last year’s loss to Loganville under identical circumstances that prevented the Warriors from advancing.

“Last year left a very sour taste in our mouth,” Witherspoon said. “And we didn’t get to work any of it off in the off-season because the pandemic happened right after the season season ended. We had to sit in it and let it fester.”

Unlike the teams that Witherspoon played on, Walnut Grove is far from a favorite. The Warriors are the No. 4 seed in Region 8, but took top-seed and No. 8-ranked Clarke Central to the limit in the Region 8 semifinals before losing by four and dropped the consolation game to Greenbrier by five.

It doesn’t help that Walnut Grove will play No. 1-ranked St. Pius in the opening round.

“We’re excited for our program,” Witherspoon said. “It’s a big step forward to break through the barrier and experience what the state tournament is going to be like. ... We’re really excited, will continue to keep working hard and let the chips fall as they may.”

Record year for New Manchester: The New Manchester boys and girls were the only team in Class 5A to be the No. 1 seed in both. The Jaguars became the first Douglas County school to win the region football and region boys and girls basketball titles in the same season.

The girls (22-3) are ranked No. 4 in the state and defeated No. 6 Maynard Jackson twice – the second time in overtime in the final regular-season game -- to nail down the top spot. Junior Kharyssa Richardson leads the team in scoring (18.5) and rebounding (10.5), while Hannah Wright (11.2 points), Kamryn Bates (10.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists) and Azaria Robertson (8.4 points, 5.6 rebounds) are key part of coach Vincent Parks’ team.

The boys (14-9), coached by James Bailey, bring balanced scoring, with Jordan Edmonds (10.6), freshman Chase James-Robinson (9.6), Derrick Early (9.6), Tyler Mapson (8.4) and Nikolai Gregory (8.1) all capable of leading the team.

Sleeper girls team: Region 2 champion Griffin (16-7) probably hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves. The Bears played a difficult non-region schedule and soundly defeated a 20-win McIntosh team three times, including the region title game. The Bears have a pair of all-region players in sophomores Leah Turner and Samiah Puckett, who may be the nucleus of future title runs. Griffin opens the playoffs against Jonesboro (10-10).

Best first-round girls game: The Union Grove girls (18-8) were the top seed in the Region 4 playoffs, got upset in the semifinals and wound up as the third seed. All-Region 4 selection Taylor Brooks (9.4 points) leads the Wolverines on the road to play Coffee in the opener. The Trojans (15-9) are led by seniors Miciah Franklin (10.5 points) and Jakeveyonna Ross (9.1 points, 6.6 rebounds).

Sleeper boys team: No. 6-ranked Lithonia (16-3) has flown under the radar most of the season. The Bulldogs have a first-year coach in Sam Marion, who took over when the legendary Wallace Corker stepped away to take the job at Salem. They have lost only to No. 1 St. Pius (twice) and Class 6A power Buford. Lithonia features Raheem Swain, a 6-4 guard who averages a DeKalb County-leading 25 points and is shooting 68 percent from the floor. Chase Champion averages 12.5 points for the Bulldogs. They open the tournament at home against Greenbrier.

Best first-round boys game: No. 7 Jonesboro finished fourth in Region 3, the toughest league in the state, and must travel to Region 2 champ Harris County for the opener. Jonesboro (16-6) features Nate Adams (14.8 points, 8.4 rebounds) and sophomore Devon Rainey (11.7 points). Harris County (16-5) brings a 10-game winning streak into the state playoffs. The Tigers are led by Region 2 player of the year Marcus Dumas, a 6-4 senior who averages 15 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.6 blocks.

Boys first-round schedule: Locust Grove at Warner Robins, Northside-Columbus at Tri-Cities, Lithia Springs at Blessed Trinity, Walnut Grove at St. Pius, Cass at Villa Rica, King at Clarke Central, Coffee at Dutchtown, Jonesboro at Harris County, Greenbrier at Lithonia, Chapel Hill at Calhoun, Griffin at Woodward Academy, Union Grove at Veterans, Forest Park at Whitewater, Wayne County at Eagle’s Landing, Decatur at Eastside, Hiram at New Manchester.

Girls first-round schedule: Union Grove at Coffee, Harris County at Woodward Academy, Grady at Cass, Walnut Grove at Southwest DeKalb, Calhoun at Maynard Jackson, Decatur at Loganville, Wayne County at Eagle’s Landing, Jonesboro at Griffin, Clarke Central at St. Pius, Lithia Springs at Hiram, Northside-Columbus at Forest Park, Jones County at Warner Robins, Mundy’s Mill at McIntosh, Ware County at Dutchtown, King at Greenbrier, Cartersville at New Manchester.

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