By Darren Nichols
STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. — The Eagle’s Landing boys basketball program is coming off its first state championship since the 2012-13 season back when former coach Clay Crump was at the helm and current head coach Elliot Montgomery was an assistant on his staff.
The Golden Eagles finished off a magical season 27-1 season where it’s only blemish was a 1-point loss to south Georgia power, Tift County back in December. Aside from that, Eagle’s Landing’s run — which also included finishing atop the Region 4-AAAAA standings with a perfect 14-0 mark — was impressive. It was satisfying. But what it wasn’t was a sign for Montgomery and company to relax.
Even though the Golden Eagles are still basking a bit in their first state title in seven years, Montgomery says nothing has changed for them in terms of their summer preparation — a big part of the team’s development for the 2021-22 season.
“We have put in a great amount of work over the summer,” Montgomery said. “We aren’t taking any of it for granted. With Covid last year, we weren’t able to do the things that we normally do in the summer. So now we have attacked it head on and have been going hard with one goal in mind.”
As usual, Montgomery and Eagle’s Landing has made strenuous conditioning an emphasis on summer workouts. It’s part of what makes them exciting to watch offensively and tough to navigate defensively. Eagle’s Landing averaged close to 75 points per game last year while holding opponents to just 53.3 points per game defensively.
Notably, this summer Montgomery has made a key effort to get his team out to face new talent and different challenges.
“(We did) a lot of camps,” he said. “We went to camps and we hosted our own. We did everything we could to make sure we were facing elite competition this summer.”
One of the camps they attended was Florida State’s annual summer high school basketball showcase, where they played some of the best prep schools that Florida had to offer. Montgomery says he wants to challenge his players like they have never been challenged before. He knows that the target is on their backs now as reigning champions, and he doesn’t want his team to hold on to last year’s success. He says staying hungry is the key.
The Golden Eagles are returning two key contributors from last year’s championship squad, senior AJ Barnes and junior David Thomas. Barnes, a 6-foot-6, 185-pounder is listed by 247sports.com as a small forward. But his ball skills allow him to play pretty much anywhere on the floor.
As for Thomas, he’s the 6-foot-2, 185-pound point guard tasked with running Montgomery’s often fast-paced offense to perfection. Montgomery knows how good Barnes and Thomas are and credits them heavily on last year’s success. That doesn’t mean he isn’t looking for more out of his dynamic duo in the upcoming encore season.
“AJ and Dave were great for us last year, and they will be great for us this year,” Montgomery said. “They have shown me what they can do on the court, but I need to see more. I need them to step up this year and be leaders. They lead on the court but I need them to be vocal. We have a lot of underclassmen that will need guidance, and those are the two they should look up to.”
The continued emergence of Barnes and Thomas will be key, given the departure of guards Jayden Jackson and Jaylen Hand. Montgomery credits much of his team’s success to that senior tandem.
“We have some big shoes to fill with Jackson and Hand being gone,” he said. “They did such a great job not only on the court but as vocal leaders too.”
Montgomery said he’s also looking for Jordan Fordyce and Fabian Desilva to help fill the void left by Jackson and Hand.
As for expectations, Montgomery is not bashful nor does he shy away from the lofty ones. That much was evident even early last year. When we asked him last year, 10 games into the season, what his expectations for that team was, his answer: “I expect nothing less than a state title from this group”.
When asked that question again, even before the new season begins, his belief that anything short of another Class AAAAA state crown would be a major disappointment should be a shock to no one.
“Some people may call me cocky or say I do too much, but at the end of the day I am really humble,” he said. “I say this because I know what it took to get here. It took losing. A lot of years of losing. Getting put out in the second round is losing. Anything short of winning a championship is losing. And it takes losing to win. You have to know what it’s like to lose to fuel you and push you even harder to know what it is like to win.”