Tigers ready for state challenge
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
Blake Craft is having a blast coaching the Troup Tigers, and he’s not ready for the journey to end.
Troup, after getting past LaGrange last weekend to finish third in Region 5-AAAA, will try to keep the season going by beating Blessed Trinity in the first round of the state tournament on Friday.
Blessed Trinity, the second-place finisher from Region 7-AAAA, will host the game, with tip-off set for 7 p.m.
“I told the kids today, I don’t want this season to end,” said Craft, Troup’s third-year head coach. “I love coming to practice. I love this group of kids. The chemistry is awesome. They get after each other, but they have fun.”
The Tigers are playing their best basketball of the season at the right time.
After losing to Cedartown on Jan. 28, Troup had dropped three straight games, and it was 2-6 in region play.
The Tigers have played seven games since then, and they’ve won five of them, and that includes two hard-fought games in the region tournament.
“They just play the game the right way,” Craft said. “These guys are completely unselfish. It’s fun. This is a fun group of kids.”
Leading the way for Troup are five seniors who have played critical roles.
That group includes Camren O’Neal, Trey Williams, Qua Johnson, Gabe Cofield and Isaiah Cox.
In the win over LaGrange that wrapped up third place in the region, Cox came up big with 16 points inside.
While Troup has plenty of shooters, Cox is an inside enforcer.
“My coach, he always tells me, gets on us about boxing out and getting rebounds,” Cox said. “I always try to grab as many as I can.”
Williams is a point guard who has the ability to hit shots from the outside, and Craft is pleased with the way he has embraced a leadership role this week.
“I told him, I’m challenging you to be more vocal, and he has had a heck of a week of practice,” Craft said.
Craft is also thrilled with the progress made by Cofield, who he compares favorably to a notorious member of the Detroit Pistons championship teams from 30 years ago.
“I see it from the beginning of the year to now. He’s like a different kid,” Craft said. “He’s become a dog. He’s becoming our enforcer, our Bill Laimbeer.”
Johnson is one of Troup’s top offensive players who has the ability to make shots in bunches from outside, and O’Neal is a versatile player who Craft will rely to play a critical defensive role on Friday.
O’Neal will guard Blessed Trinity’s top offensive player, and Craft is confident in his ability to get the job done.
“He’s going to be on the region player of the year, and he’s up for it,” Craft said. “He likes these type of things.”
Among the underclassmen who’ll see time on the court on Friday are juniors Ricco Person and K.J. Tucker, who have stepped up their offensive games late in the season.
“They’re starting to come into their own, which makes us that much better of an offensive team,” Craft said.
Junior post player Gabe Stepp will also play key minutes on Friday, and freshman Jaquavious Whitfield has developed into one of Troup’s top players.
Troup’s opponent is a Blessed Trinity team that Craft believes will fight to the end, regardless of the score.
“They play relentless for 32 minutes,” Craft said. “Every loose ball, they’re diving for. They’re unselfish. They’re a very well-coached team, and they play hard.”
It’s a stern challenge against a quality team, but Cox believes he and his teammates have what it takes to keep the season alive.
“I feel like we’re going to be ready to fight against every team we go against,” Cox said. “I feel like we can go far if we keep playing like we’re playing now.”
WHAT: First round of Class AAAA boys state tournament
WHEN: Friday, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Blessed Trinity
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Troup (13-12) finished third in the Region 5-AAAA tournament; Blessed Trinity (17-9) finished second in the Region 7-AAAA tournament
UP NEXT: The winner will play Thomson or Americus-Sumter in the second round