Rebels eyeing even bigger things

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 16, 2011



Riverside coach Timmy Byrd just as well might have hung a “to be continued …” sign up over the season his Rebels have just completed, securing the Class 2A state championship with a win over Evangel.

“Is this the best team you’ve had?” was the question posed to Byrd, who has now guided nine state champions in his coaching career.

He seemed to know the question was coming.

“Not yet,” he said. “It’s the most talented team I’ve had without question. It’s the best defensive team by far.

“But this team hasn’t accomplished what Tweety’s teams accomplished,” he continued, referring to Tweety Carter, his former superstar guard while at Reserve Christian. “That team beat five top 20 teams and won two national tournaments. This team has beaten two top 20 teams, but hasn’t won a national tournament. So until they do that, I can’t crown them the best.”

Note the use of “until”.

Almost the entire Rebel team will return intact next season. Riverside loses just one player from its regular rotation – senior T.J. Scott. Each player in the starting lineup – Ricardo Gathers, Louis Dabney, Donald Thomas, Zelvin Smith and Lucas Martin-Julien – will be entering his senior year.

Those players are usually fresh too, as Riverside routinely dips deep into their bench. The Rebels played 12 players in the first half of its semifinal game with Episcopal and 11 in the first half against Evangel.

It would probably be accurate to call Riverside the deepest team in the state – Byrd can essentially play two highly competitive teams with strong players to spare. But it’s led by a pair of high-end Division I recruits.

The 6-foot-8, 240 pound Gathers is a force that attracts defensive attention inside, and the Rebels have a bevy of shooters and slashers to compliment him. He’s earned state championship MVP honors for three straight seasons, and is a likely contender to earn his second straight season MVP within Class 2A.

The team’s major loss a year ago at this time was guard Cedric Jenkins, who went on to play at Southern Mississippi. His shoes have been filled in many ways by Dabney, the team’s second leading scorer. The guard’s ability to get to the rim combined with an outside shooting touch and dogged defensive play has turned him into a top recruit.

Gathers listed LSU, St. John’s, Baylor, Georgia Tech, Connecticut and Syracuse are among schools that have shown interest. He said he thinks he’ll make up his mind by November.

Dabney noted Texas A&M, LSU, Tulane, Alabama and Ole Miss as schools that are interested.

Byrd said that the recruiting toll can be heavy.

“When you have two high Division I players, it gets crazy and gets crazier by the day,” he said. “I know it sucks the life out of me as a coach, so I know it’s even worse for Louis and Rico. At one point we’d had scouts from five east coast schools in our gym, and that’s pretty rare.”

All five of the team’s starters, Byrd estimates, will go on to play Division I ball.

Gathers and his teammates already have their sights set on next season.

“Next year, we’re definitely pushing for a national title,” said Gathers. “Definitely pushing for that.”

Riverside has the talent to make it happen. Just ask Evangel coach Reni Mason, whose team fell to the Rebels at the Top 28 for the second year in a row. Or ask Episcopal coach Chris Beckham, who said after his team fell to Riverside in the state semifinals that the Rebels were “the best high school team I’ve seen in 15 years of coaching.”

“To play 12 guys in the first half, in a semifinal game, and you go on to win by over 30, that’s amazing to me. I think they’re the best team in any classification in the state,” Beckham said.

Mason uttered a simple “wow” to begin his postgame press conference.

“They’re loaded. What can you really say?” he said. “They could have played three different teams out there. They’re just a great basketball team … a team of Division I talent.”

But establishing themselves as the best team in Class 2A – and perhaps the state – is a preliminary goal to Riverside. As Byrd said, if this team has aspirations to laying claim to the crown of “best team in the Byrd era”, then it can’t be satisfied with wins at the Top 28.

“If this team wants to be known as the best team that I’ve had, then it needs to do it on the national level,” said Byrd. “It was important for us to finish with the state championship to give us that momentum heading into next season.”

Riverside will have a chance to reach those goals. Byrd said that the Rebels are set to play in at least three national tournaments next season. The Rebels are also set to play in a Hall of Fame game in Springfield, Massachusetts. That game will pit the Rebels against another top team in the nation (to be determined) and will be televised on ESPN.

“There is no excuse, the opportunity is there,” said Byrd. “They have the talent. And in some specific areas, this team is the best I’ve had. But it needs to have the production to match.”

Byrd said that he knew what he had on his hands when this group of seniors-to-be, by and large, were freshmen.

“We believed that this bunch could become a factor nationally,” said Byrd.

“Their quickness, strength and athletic skill was pretty apparent. Still, it’s not enough to just have talent. Some breaks have to go your way (to win nationally). Or more accurately, you have to create your own luck.”

So having seen the heights his teams have already reached, can it all be topped?

Tune in next year to find out.