Marcus Thornton still has the photo of his 6-and-under basketball team. It was called the Ben Hill Tigers and they won the championship.
Pictured are Thornton, Jeff Newberry and Tony Jacobs, all starters today at Westlake High School, the state’s second-ranked boys team in Class AAAAA. It helps that Thornton and Jacobs have grown to 6 feet 8.
“I’ve known most of these guys four years or more,’’ said Thornton, who has signed with Clemson. “It has a lot to do with our success. Playing with people I’ve known for years definitely is a factor in how well the team is playing.’’
In an era in which transfers and move-ins shape the best teams in Georgia’s highest class, Westlake is unusual.
Westlake has benefited from a couple of transfers too, including Newberry, who moved back from North Clayton this season. But almost every player on the current team grew up in southwest Atlanta. They played with or against each other in area parks such as Ben Hill, Burdette, Sandtown and Welcome All.
“It’s a hub for talent,’’ said coach Darron Rogers, who has won two state titles and sent more than 30 players to colleges on scholarship in his 14 seasons at Westlake. “We have all types of camps and clinics to build up talent in our area, hoping it will manifest itself in what we have now.’’
Players who have gone through local youth leagues or attended area high schools this decade include Dwight Howard (NBA), Gani Lawal (Georgia Tech), Ari Stewart (Wake Forest), Jermareo Davidson (Alabama, NBA) and Westlake graduates A.J. Moye and Earl Callaway (both Indiana).
Not all played their high school ball there, but enough did to fuel state championship teams from Westlake, Mays and Southwest Atlanta Christian.
Westlake is just as widely known as a football factory, with six graduates who have played in the NFL in just the past five years. Sean Jones, Adam “Pac Man” Jones and Keyaron Fox played on Westlake's state championship basketball team of 1999.
Yet the spotlight in recent years has eluded Westlake. The team reached the AAAAA semifinals in 2009 but was overshadowed by eventual champion Wheeler and runner-up Milton, which opened this season as the teams to beat.
Rogers believes his team might have more depth than other contenders. It’s also his most athletic group. Jacobs is 300 pounds and will play football and basketball at Central Florida.
‘’This team has the most dunks of any team I’ve had,’’ Rogers said. “We average 11 or 12 dunks a game. Even the state championship teams were not dunking like this. We’re very athletic.’’
The team also has good size. Nine players are at least 6-3, including combo guard Chad Johnson, who has signed with Colgate.
‘’We have a lot of talent, period,’’ Thornton said. “Most teams go six or seven deep. We can go 10 or 11 that could eventually be Division I players. Plus we know each other. We’re family. We definitely have a great shot at winning it all.’’
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