(Carrollton, GA) — Keith Simmons felt like he had something special on his hands.
But becoming the third different head coach in three years for the Heard County High School boys’ basketball program, it was a matter of earning and maintaining the trust of players that were hungry for bigger and better things.
Times-Georgian All-Area Coach Keith Simmons (Photo: Corey Cusick/Times-Georgian)
The Braves were on the cusp of just that, and Simmons, the 2016-17 Times-Georgian All-Area Coach of the Year, proved to be the leader to take them to the next level.
“I kind of was a piece, and I mean exactly that, I was a piece that fit in well with a good group of guys that made us all one,” Simmons said.
“It literally was a team effort, which made it so enjoyable for them and so enjoyable to me just being a part of it and seeing the growth.”
Heard County ended a 57-year region title drought and won its first state playoff game since 2002 under Simmons’ watch, marking a memorable year for the program that the first-year head coach expects to become a standard rather than a blip on the radar.
But it all started with this group, which put in the work over the past three to four years to reach this point. Simmons noted how it was a collective effort, but it was a season-long process of putting all the pieces to the puzzle together.
“Honestly, until December that was the first time I had everybody,” Simmons said.
“Emory [Jones] was hurt, so I didn’t have Emory this summer. So we just had some pieces that we could work out and once I started to see we had a lineup for everything … We had a big lineup, we had a fast lineup, we had a 3-point lineup. Once we saw we had a lineup for everything and then getting Emory back, that’s a big part. He can play one through five just because he’s a heck of an athlete. But when you take him with the guards that we have and the forwards that we have and then you’ve got the glue piece in the middle, it allowed us to be really, really special and do some great things like 23-5. That might not be a state championship, but that’s nothing to sneeze at.”
A region title, second-round state playoff showing and 23-5 finish was something that hadn’t happened for Heard County hoops in a long time. It was a performance for the ages, and Simmons still left the season with that ‘what-if?’ feeling had all the pieces been together for the entire campaign.
When at full strength, it was a nine-man rotation that featured all-state performers Jordarius Foster and Alijah Huzzie, along with Ohio State football commit Emory Jones, as well as Dekari Brewer, Tay Watson, Darius Mathews, Tray Dunson and Christian Murray.
They were a tight-knit group that had been through its fair share of adversity, and forged through for a historic finish this winter.
“All as one. Just togetherness. We were 23-5 on the nights that we played seven or eight people. When there were nine dressed, we were 21-0. When any piece was missing, we were 2-5,” Simmons said. “So it lets you know. Jordarius was a big piece, but it really was a team effort. Sometimes coaches preach on team effort, but you’ve got a big piece that does so much. This really was the whole thing.
“Tray that last [game], he’s our defensive stopper. We missed Emory early on and Huzzie early on. When we had all nine, that is a special group of guys. We were, literally, undefeated this year when those nine hit the court.”
What made it even more special was not only the bond between the players, but the school and community that rallied around the Braves throughout their historic journey.
“Real special. Just sitting back watching the whole thing and the whole community, it kind of galvanized everyone, especially us and the girls making a run at the same time. It was special just to see the emotion it brought out in the boys. The whole spectrum of emotion from tears of joy that night to tears of pain two weeks later. But we did it all together,” Simmons said.
“I tell them and I don’t know if they believe me when I say it, but I say, ‘That was y’all. That wasn’t me.’ Every now and then I’d take them and move them back in the right direction, but that was years of grinding that they’ve done and a community that’s been waiting for it. The thing about a town like this, everybody had a stake in at least one of those kids. They either taught them or they go to their church. There’s something there and it makes it special when it happens in a place like this. That’s why I was real glad to be a part of what we could do this year.”