A top-performing senior squad topples a long-standing wheelchair basketball dynasty
The Houston County Sharks were in line for championship number nine when their players rolled onto the court at the Macon Centreplex in Macon, Ga., for the 2021 American Association of Adapted Sports Programs (AAASP) Georgia High School Association (GHSA) Wheelchair Basketball State Final on March 13.
However, even with a second-half defensive rally, the team could not sway the game dominated in its first three quarters with basket after basket, made by the Gwinnett County Heat.
The final score was 42-25.
Christy Jones, Houston County Schools’ coach and orthopedic impaired teacher, had little doubt both teams would leave it all out on the court.
“We bring the highest level of competition out of each other,” she said of Gwinnett, who they last met in a final game back in 2019 (39-17). “They have been working hard for several years to beat us.”
This year, her young Houston County team that included two seventh graders faced a Gwinnett powerhouse of four senior players. Jones said after the game, “I couldn’t be more proud of them. We made the decision together that Gwinnett was going to have to earn it.”
Earning it meant that the first half high-scorer for Gwinnett, senior Will Millikan (20 points), had to work around Houston ninth grader Dylan Thompson’s defense in the second. Millikan’s 6-foot-2-inch reach proved little match for Thompson’s (5-foot-4) maneuvering to get the biggest part of his wheelchair against his to successfully keep Millikan well out of the paint.
However, this allowed Gwinnett senior Seth Earley (18 points) to take over as lead.
“With Will scoring so many so early, he was able to turn Houston’s defensive focus towards himself and allowed me to get open looks, along with great picking from our team,” Earley said.
Accommodating practices during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic meant that basketball made the cut, but for players like Earley who stay in shape by also participating in football and handball, Georgia games were canceled.
Leading up to Saturday’s game, Houston County’s forward, 11th grader Langley Yoh said riding the highs and lows of finals season is normal. She said coaches have to teach aggressiveness to get a team to a championship, but she especially believes the adaptive environment rewards hard work and heart.
“One moment, you’re in your chair with your head down and your eyes closed and in the next, you’re screaming for joy, so it’s a very up-and-down experience,” she said.
In Saturday’s contest, despite a loss, “giving it up easily would not have been good,” Yoh added.
In the end, Joe Hall (12 points) who put up half of the Sharks’ total points, made one final statement under the bucket, sinking one with only 38 seconds left on the buzzer.
“Overall, we definitely had courage and communication, but our chemistry just needs to be better,” Thompson said. “There is a ton of room for improvement next year.”
Graduating talent means always rebuilding a program, but its importance cannot be understated.
“Every game is about being ourselves and, especially, a championship,” said Georgia Athletic Directors Association Hall of Famer and Gwinnett area coordinator Mike Phillips. “The gratifying part was watching everyone be successful, knowing how hard they’ve worked, and it was enjoyable watching them have fun.”
The GHSA Varsity and Junior Varsity Alliance is supported by AAASP across the state, and Co-Founder and Executive Director Bev Vaughn said she is most proud of the fact that over its 25-year existence, friendships are what have really set the stage for success.
Earley is committed to the University of Alabama. His five-year basketball career has included three, second-place finishes to the Sharks in a high school final. He summed up, “We definitely had some run-ins, and they have never shied away from a state title.”
This time, he said, “We fought hard, delivered the ball and were that team built to go out on top.”