By Gabriel Stovall
LOCUST GROVE, Ga. — Let David Walker tell it, coach Noah Harrell has wings.
Walker, the senior point guard at Locust Grove has been at the school for just two years, but that’s long enough for him to see the best and worst of times on the basketball court.
An example of the latter, last season’s Wildcats team finished a paltry 5-21, not grabbing their fifth win until February 3 in the second to last game of the season — a 67-61 victory over a Hampton program competing in its first year.
That was during former coach Greg Wilson’s last season at the helm. And Walker makes it clear that he has the utmost respect for Wilson. He and Wilson have even chatted a few times this season about Locust Grove’s progress.
But this Harrell guy? In a word, Walker describes him as, well — let’s just say Walker sees him as having some celestial qualities.
“Coach Harrell is an angel,” Walker said. “He came over here knowing the record and knowing the reputation of the school and he’s just changed the whole program. He’s changed everything and just gotten us to see it so differently. He’s a great coach, but he’s so much more than just a coach to us.”
According to Walker, his team’s 7-11 record — seven being the most wins a Locust Grove team has ever had this early in a season — is proof of the difference Harrell’s made. And it’s one that started in the team’s mind before it found its way to the hardwood.
“We are way better than we’ve ever been,” Walker said. “But in the past we didn’t know what we had. Coach Harrell made us realize that we had so many elements on this team, we feel like we can beat any team in our region. We’ve stopped playing to what everybody in Henry County thinks we’re supposed to be. We don’t go out thinking we’re supposed to lose now just because everyone else looks at Locust Grove and says we aren’t good in basketball.
“Those days are over.”
It’s the kind of mental metamorphosis the former Salem High coach and program builder hoped would take hold in his first year at Locust Grove.
“I took over a program that had a losing mentality,” Harrell said. “And I knew from the beginning that it was going have to be me trying to break that. And I see it’s starting to break. We’re going into games now not feeling like, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ But we’re going in saying, ‘Let’s go win.’” It’s a process. We still have our times when we struggle, but we’re growing.”
A big part of that growth showed itself this past Saturday when Locust Grove notched its first ever win over Henry County. It was an 81-78 victory that saw the Wildcats build up a 17 point lead in the third quarter while also serving as a coming out party of sorts for sophomore Brandon Thomas who poured in 39 points that night.
The entire performance still leaves Walker struggling for words.
“I couldn’t believe it was real,” he said. “I couldn’t believe we were scoring as easily as we were.”
Despite disbelief of the outcome, Walker said he and his teammates came into the contest against the Warhawks with a fire in their bellies to prove a point to those who felt they had Locust Grove all figured out.
“I’m one of the team captains, man, so I was just back there, along with Brandon Sterling and we just talked to the team,” Walker said. “It was a 15 minute conversation. We said, ‘Lose or win, we gotta give it our all. We can’t go out there and just act like we’re going to lose just because we’re Locust Grove.”
Both Walker and Harrell said the performance was the first time the Wildcats put together a complete, four-quarter effort all season. It made Harrell especially happy, as he said it provided clear cut evidence of what he’s been preaching to his boys all season.
“They would show signs of playing like that early on,” Harrell said. “But they would do it in spurts. We hadn’t done it for four quarters until Henry County. It was just a matter of us getting over that hurdle.”
Perhaps key to the victory was the fact that Locust Grove shifted from its zone-style defensive sets to a more aggressive man-to-man approach.
The results got such rave reviews from Wildcat players that when Harrell asked his team in practice Sunday if they wanted to switch back to zone when they play Eagle’s Landing Tuesday night, the response was strong and unanimously negative.
“(Harrell) was like, ‘Do ya’ll want to sit in zone again on Tuesday,’ and the whole team shouted out ‘No’ at the same time,” Walker said. “Every time we play zone the other team’s shooters just find a way to shoot the lights out of it.
“We want to get out there and play man on them and take it to them and make Eagle’s Landing beat us.”
The game has special significance for Walker who started his high school career playing at Eagle’s Landing with coach Elliot Montgomery.
The Golden Eagles (18-1, 9-1) are sitting comfortably in second place in Region 4-AAAA behind only top-ranked Jonesboro. And Walker said he’s wary of the kind of weapons his old team possesses. But he hopes his familiarity with them can help him prep his new teammates on what to expect from the McDonough school.
“I’ve been talking to my guys at practice, most definitely,” Walker said. “They’ve got a lot of talent over there, like point guard Jordan Lewis. He can just penetrate and shoot. He does it all. Terrence Evans can shoot. Antonio Gibson. All of those guys. They have a lot of threats over there. It’s not like playing against Henry County when we felt like if we could just stop Devon (Brooks) or Javon (Greene) we’d be okay. Eagle’s Landing is well rounded.”
Last time the Wildcats played a team even close to Eagle’s Landing’s caliber, they were getting walloped by Jonesboro to the tune of 94-58. But that was back on December 1 in just the fifth game of the season.
Since then Locust Grove has had blowout wins at Ola, against Strong Rock and against Hampton, along with a convincing victory against Union Grove. The 19 point “W” at Ola was the first time in school
history the Wildcats had ever won at Ola’s gym.
But the uptick in competition will be sharp when the Cats travel to McDonough. And Harrell said he’s anxious to use the matchup with Eagle’s Landing as a barometer of progress.
“Tomorrow night is huge for us,” Harrell said. “It goes a long way in terms of our confidence and seeing how much we’ve grown. It’s the next real test.”
Visit thecrescentbuzz.com Tuesday night for more on Locust Grove’s improvement and coach Noah Harrell’s program building experience.