By Bill Renje | @BillRenje (Twitter)
Few people thought much of the Dutchtown basketball team as the season began in mid-November.
Nobody, including the Bulldogs themselves, thought they’d be hosting a state playoff game for the first time in school history after finishing as Region 4-AAAAA runner-up with a program best 19-8 record.
Although the Bulldogs progressed from five to 11 wins the previous two seasons, six of their top players graduated last year and two other players left the program. Add to that, the uncertainty with a new coach in Jamal Basit, a program that never finished above .500 according to MaxPreps and, well, there’s reasons why the energy level of expectations around the program were low.
The early season results did nothing but reinforce those expectations as Dutchtown headed into Christmas break with a 3-4 record which included blowout losses at region rivals Stockbridge and Woodland by a combined 42 points.
But something clicked for the Bulldogs as they swept the Copeland Classic Christmas Tournament in Macon with three victories in three days, including back-to-back one point victories.
For a program used to going weeks without a victory in stretches throughout its history, learning to win in Macon and developing the camaraderie every successful team needs gave them a springboard to a 16-4 post-Christmas record.
Bryce Parks, the team’s senior captain and leading scorer at 12 points per game, pointed back to winning that tournament as a pivotal point in their season.
“When we went down to Macon, we came together as a team when we won that championship,” Parks said.
“We turned the corner in my opinion over Christmas break when we got away from everything, Because I didn’t know these kids,” he said. “So something as simple as staying in a hotel and eating dinner together was a big deal. It doesn’t sound like a big deal. But spending that time, and spending my own money on dinner showed these kids that I’m invested in them.”
The key stretch in the Bulldogs’ season came in mid-January with four wins in a row, three against rivals Union Grove, Eagles Landing and Stockbridge — all of whom, at the time, sat above them in the region standings.
Overcoming a 14-point second quarter deficit against Eagles Landing, ranked 6th in Class AAAAA going into that game, showed the toughness and resiliency within the Bulldogs while helping them learn now to win.
“We’ve been waiting years to win a game like this,” junior starting forward Kendall Cordell said after the game.
“Beating them felt good,” Parks added. “Because this school hasn’t beaten them in forever. Coming back like we did and getting that W, made us realize we can get the job done.”
In addition to the strong backcourt play of junior guards Myles Johnson and Christian Blue who significantly cut down team turnovers from years past, senior DeAndre Watson is another huge reason why Dutchtown is still playing and heading to the state playoffs.
Watson was cut from the program his sophomore year and played mostly junior varsity last season. But he didn’t quit, kept working and as a forward, at only 6’3, he’s become a low post force offensively and a strong defender despite being matched against opponents with more height.
To round out his game, he’s developed a consistent mid-range jumper, averaging 10 points per game with a team-leading six rebounds.
Watson credits Parks and fellow senior Luther Moore for helping him adjust to the varsity level and a leadership role.
“Coming into the season and not being very good last year, Bryce and Luther welcomed me in like I had been playing with them all four years,” said Watson. “I don’t just have to do one thing. When we’re out there in a game, it’s just like playing in the gym with them.
With the state playoffs beginning Friday night at home for Dutchtown against Ware County, Basit will be looking for his team to build on the successes of the season as well as learning from their 51-43 loss to Eagles Landing in the region championship game.
“I am looking for my team to seize the moment and not be held hostage by it,” Basit said. “I think the region championship experience taught us a lesson on seizing the moment.”