Westside, with new cast, eyeing 3-peat

No. 2 Patriots steadying ship after early issues

The Westside Patriots are in the midst of a run they hope ends with a third consecutive state title, which has only been done once Class 2A, when Mitchell-Baker won from 1998-2000.

So far, so good. The Patriots are 13-3, 4-1 in Region 4 and ranked No. 2. While that certainly puts them in the championship discussion, Patriots fifth-year coach Jerry Hunter wasn’t sure if this year’s team would be up to the task of another deep postseason run.

“We’ve come along way,” Hunter said. “This is a new team, and we were fortunate enough to repeat last year. But we only have two pieces back for a three-peat, and three major pieces are gone. So far, it’s been about learning how to win. You can have a high skill level but not know how to play, or how to win.”

The Patriots’ last game was Friday, a 55-44 win over Butler in region play. The two played Dec. 22 in a holiday tournament, and Butler won 56-49, though the game didn’t count toward the 4-2A standings. Hunter said the difference in the rematch comes from where the team is at this point in the season.

“We had a few off-the-court issues, where kids didn’t understand the importance of team togetherness,” Hunter said. “We had knocked off some teams (before the Butler loss), and we just weren’t as focused. We were prepared (for Friday’s game).”

Hunter said the off-the-court issues impacted the team during a stretch from Dec. 15-Jan. 1 that saw them go 3-3, with a loss to top-ranked Thomson, and back-to-back losses to No. 3 Butler and Grey Collegiate, ranked No. 1 in South Carolina’s 2A.

“Losing a game is one thing,” Hunter said. “But losing the locker room is another. Things happened that jeopardized the locker room, and we struggled with that. In those (three losses), we were right there with them. We had a lot going on during that little span, but we’re back where we need to be. Kids make mistakes, and they learn how to become teammates. Some of these players don’t have the background of playing with each other since the first grade, and that matters.”

The 3-3 skid wasn’t all bad. They rebounded from their loss to Thomson on Dec. 15. by beating 4A’s top-ranked McDonough the next day. They also saw early success with double-digit wins over Augusta Christian, ranked No. 2 in the NCISAA’s 4A, and 3As No. 5 Cross Creek on Dec. 1.

On Dec. 9, they beat North Augusta, ranked No. 6 in South Carolina’s 4A, 59-58.

“That game came down to resiliency, rebounding and making free throws,” Hunter said. “We needed that in terms of being battle-tested.”

Against Thomson, the Patriots had a lead but instead of winning, the game became a learning lesson.

“It was shot selection,” Hunter said. “We wanted to stretch the lead from the 3-point line instead of the free throw line, which led to some transition points for them, and Thomson refused to lose that night. We needed to learn how to beat Westside after that game, because we beat ourselves.”

The Patriots are in the toughest region of 2A, at least if you go by the AJC rankings, which have Thomson, Westside and Butler, all from Region 4, ranked 1-2-3, respectively.

“(In the Augusta area), the talent levels out and it boils down to toughness,” Hunter said. “Butler, Thomson, Putnam County...(to compete in Region 4), it takes toughness, playing hard night in and night out and discipline, but more than anything, toughness. Our region is one of the toughest in the state, and it’s going to say a lot for us if we’re going to make this (championship) run.”

Seniors Demarco Middleton and Xavier Goss are the two returning starters. Middleton, the team’s point guard, had the luxury of having 1,000-point scorers for their prep careers in each of his first three seasons, but not this year. He’s averaging a team-high 14 points with 4.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals.

“Early on, he was in search of where those 6, 7 assists (he’s averaged his career) would go to. The trust had to be there. He’s leading the team in scoring for the first time, and he’s finding the pieces around him, and the kids are starting to understand their roles, like last year.”

The Patriots had to replace last year’s 2A player of the year, Khalon Hudson, along with Jalexs Ewing and Amari Tillman, who were their top three scorers. Following Middleton in scoring are junior Jarious Adkinson (11.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.2 steals) and senior Lavonta Ivery (11.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.6 steals). Ivery transferred to Westside from Thomson.

Senior Bobby Blackwell (six points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.9 blocks), and sophomores Dontrell Jackson (9.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.3 steals) and Javan Webb (6.6 point`s, 5.2 rebounds, one steal) are others that have stepped up this season.

“The first half, they were getting as much experience as they could, and you can’t substitute for that,” Hunter said. “So, their confidence is in a better place.”

The Patriots have eight more games until the postseason, starting with Laney (8-7, 3-2) at home on Tuesday. Hunter said consistency down the stretch will be key in whether the Patriots win a third straight title, a task he thinks they can achieve.

“If we can become better rebounders and defenders, potentially, yes,” Hunter said when asked of a three-peat possibility. “We can score with the best of them, but the way we want to win requires discipline.”