Young Rebels stay focused on title chase

Published 12:02 am Wednesday, January 11, 2017

RESERVE — There was no rest for the weary Riverside Academy Rebels on Monday.

Coach Timmy Byrd had his basketball players running, dribbling balls two at a time, blocking, occasionally knocking people over and, at some points, gasping for air.

It was not a punishment.

Rather, it was a refocusing on the little things that usually make this team stand out from the rest.

This is Riverside, the winner of five of the last seven Class 2A state championships and the winner of three of the last four Sugar Bowl Prep Classic basketball tournaments, including last year.

They didn’t win this year’s tournament, though.

The Rebels defeated Helen Cox 72-57 in the opening round, then fell to Kingwood Christian of Texas, 72-67, in overtime on Thursday. That follows losses in the final of the Country Day Classic and a fifth place finish at the Sunkist Shootout in Lafayette.

The Rebels open District 12-2A play Friday against arch-rival St. Charles Catholic. Game time is 7 p.m. at St. Charles.

Byrd said he was proud of his team’s effort last weekend to come back and send the game into overtime.

“Their size really affected us,” Byrd said of the Mustangs, who started players that were 6-foot-9, 6-8 and 6-7. “It took us three quarters to kind of settle down and realize what we needed to do.”

Juniors Garland Robertson and Jared Butler took control late, hitting a series of 3-point shots to rally for the tie.

Byrd said the team just couldn’t get it done in overtime.

“Our kids were playing so hard to get back in the game,” he said. “We went up by 3, then we didn’t take good shots the next three times down the court. We were right there, though, to beat a really good team.”

The loss did not sit well with the Rebels.

“We’re so used to winning,” Butler said. “Losing is such a new thing we’ve got to learn how to deal with it.”

Byrd said there is no reason to panic, though. He also said, it’s not the football team’s fault.

Like last year, the Rebels football team made it to the Division III final. Unlike last year, they won it. That was more than a month ago.

“You can’t blame it on football at this point,” Byrd said. “We’ve got enough games under our belt where we can overcome football.”

The main thing the Rebels must overcome this season is themselves and the one thing can’t control — their youth.

This year’s starting lineup is made up of juniors Robertson, Butler, Jalen Banks, Jeremiah Bigham and Jordan Loving; sophomores Isiah Bigham and Kash Foley. Calvin Berry is the lone senior and he didn’t play last year.

Together, they must make up for the losses of Herb McGee, now a starting point guard at South Alabama; Malik Crowfield, now a starting point guard at Virginia Commonwealth; and Kendall Martin, now a defensive back on the football team at Southern Arkansas.

“We lost half of our team,” Byrd said. “I guess some people say it’s a rebuilding year for us, but our expectation is just — it’s a new season. I guess you could call it reload. We’ve still got really good players. It’s just a matter of them understanding what makes us go.”

Banks said it’s taking time for the players to find their roles.

“Last year we had a lot of seniors on the team,” Banks said. “This year, guys are stepping into new roles and really, I guess, struggling to fill those shoes.”

Butler said he understands his role.

“It’s an old but young team,” Butler said. “We’re the team that was under Herb and Malik last year. We’re experienced as far as games-wise, but we’re young being the guys of the team. We were role players. Now we’re the leaders. This is our team. I have to be more of a leader.”

None of this will change the Rebels’ expectations for March, however. They still expect to play for — and win — the state championship.

It remains to be seen how that all will play out. This is the first year of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association’s new split for basketball (and baseball and softball). Instead of seven champions crowned in Sulphur, there will be 11 champions in five non-select school classes and four select school divisions. Byrd is not a fan.

“It’s ridiculous if you ask me,” he said.