Had the season come to a close Tuesday night, the Callaway Cavaliers would have had no reason to hang their heads.
The Cavaliers came into their second-round state-tournament game against Thomson having already accomplished so much.
They’d captured a second consecutive region championship, they’d won 20 games, and they’d won a first-round state game against Peach County.
That is impressive stuff for any team, but especially for a squad that has a bunch of freshmen and sophomores playing such key roles.
Among the players who have helped the Cavaliers enjoy such great success this season is a freshman (Braylon Sanders) and a handful of sophomores including Dre Martin, Joe Brown and a Ernest Patillo.
And these just aren’t guys along for the ride.
Martin has been amazing in the state tournament with nearly 70 points in two games, Sanders has more than 40 points in the two state games, Brown is the team’s top post player, and Patillo is a play-making guard who has been one of the team’s most dynamic players all season.
So had the run ended with a loss to Thomson Tuesday, it would have been disappointing, but perfectly understandable considering the team’s youth.
And when the Cavaliers found themselves facing a 14-point deficit midway through the third period, the odds were looking pretty good that the end was near.
These Cavaliers weren’t thinking that way, though.
No one was hanging their heads.
“It’s that never-say-die attitude,” Callaway coach Terry Hayes said. “They keep each other up.”
Soon enough, the Cavaliers fought their way back into the game, and by the close of the third period they were within two.
Thomson managed to hold back what seemed like an unstoppable force for a good portion of the fourth quarter, but it was just a matter of time.
The Cavaliers were forcing turnover after turnover, and their scorers were putting the ball in the basket.
With 49 seconds remaining in the game, Terry Godwin scored to give the Cavaliers a one-point lead, and that was part of an 11-0 run that put the game away.
By the time Thomson broke that 11-0 run with a basket with 17 seconds left, the game was over.
The Cavaliers won 87-83.
Plans for next season will have to wait, because the Cavaliers have at least one more game to play.
Callaway will host Swainsboro at 6 p.m. today, with the winner advancing to the semifinals on Saturday in Milledgeville.
“I’m very proud,” Hayes said. “This is a freshman and sophomore team. I’m very proud of them.”
There are plenty of veterans on the team as well, including five seniors in Pedy Leverette, Ed Daniel, Jeremiah Simpson, Chris Jones and Daniel Heard, as well as a junior in Godwin who is a multi-year starter.
And although Martin and Brown are just sophomores, they played considerably on last year’s team that lost in the first round of the state tournament.
Even the freshmen who play now have nearly 30 games under their belt, so everyone has plenty of experience.
The Cavaliers have been an outstanding team all season, but there is no question they’re at their best right now.
The one thing that has been there since Day 1 is the defense.
The Cavaliers are a perimeter-oriented team, and they have the talent and depth at the guard position to wear opponents down with their full-court press.
The Cavaliers also have the offensive weapons to turn the multitude of turnovers they force into points, whether it’s Martin or Sanders hitting a 3-pointer, Godwin or Patillo slashing their way to the basket, Brown scoring in the paint, or Leverette putting back an offensive rebound.
“At the beginning of the season, our defense was all we had,” Godwin said. “As we continued to play and play, the offense became even with the defense. Our offense makes our defense, and our defense makes our offense.”
When the Cavaliers score, they’re able to set up their press, and that pressure oftentimes leads to points.
The pressure has really made an impact in the fourth quarter of the first two state games.
In the state opener, Callaway outscored Peach County 28-11 in the final quarter.
On Tuesday, Callaway outscored Thomson 27-21 in the final period.
Peach County and Thomson both looked gassed late, while Callaway’s players looked like they could go another four periods.
The strategy won’t change today.
Against Swainsboro, the Cavaliers will rely on their suffocating defense, they’ll look for Martin and Sanders to continue to find the range and for Godwin to make big plays whether he’s out-leaping a couple of defenders to grab a rebound or making a steal, they’ll hope that Leverette continues to make a huge impact on both ends of the court, they’ll feed the ball to Brown inside where he’s so dangerous, and they’ll count on everybody who steps onto the floor to do something to help the team, even if that contribution doesn’t show up in a box score.
And leading the team will be Hayes, who has been pushing all the right buttons this season.
Anyone who has watched the Cavaliers knows how much passion Hayes has, and the players clearly respond to him.
Add it all up and the Cavaliers are the complete package.
That’s why they’re one of eight teams left standing in Class AAA, and they’re just three wins away from a state championship.
As for today’s game, Swainsboro is a .500 ball club, but it has played well enough to get to this point.
It’s a game the Cavaliers feel like they should win, but you respect anybody who has won two games in the state tournament.
If the Cavaliers win, they would play either Cartersville or Buford in the semifinals.
On the other side of the Class AAA bracket, Washington County, Johnson-Savannah, Cedar Grove and Morgan County are still alive.
It’s a tough road for the Cavaliers, but they believe they have what it takes to make it all the way.
As promising as the future looks for this basketball team, the present is awfully bright as well.
Will that present include a trip to the final four?
We’ll find out today, and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.