The 2015-16 Bartow County high school boys basketball season was defined by strong guard play.
Nearly 60 percent of the five county teams’ scoring this season came from the starting backcourts, and all 10 Bartow players who averaged double figures were guards.
The guard-oriented play had varying levels of success for Adairsville, Cartersville, Cass, Excel and Woodland.
Cartersville registered its fourth consecutive region championship and fourth consecutive 20-win season. The Canes won both the regular season and tournament in Region 7-AAAA. They finished with a record of 20-7, 12-2 in region play. Cartersville lost its first-round state playoff game against St. Pius, which finished as the No. 6-ranked team in Class 4A.
The Canes played an uptempo game after getting many of its athletes back from the football team in mid-December. The style of play resulted in the Canes scoring an average of 69 points per game.
Two of the most intense games this year were the ones between Cartersville and Cass. The teams split the two games, each winning at home. Cass went on to post a 10-16 overall record and went 3-9 in region play.
The Colonels came within two wins of qualifying for state. They lost in double overtime against Kell in the second round of the Region 7-AAAAA tournament. Kell then went on to win its next game to make state. Still, Cass had some quality wins in David Brock’s first year at the helm, including a win over Creekview, the No. 3 team in the subregion. Cass also defeated Adairsville and Woodland twice.
Excel was another team eliminated from the region tournament in an overtime game. Excel battled for the No. 2 spot in the subregion all season long, finishing third in Region 6A-A. The Eagles completed their season with a record of 12-14 with a 6-4 record in region in head coach Matt Sanders’ first year.
Six of the 16 teams that qualified for the Class A-Private playoffs were from Region 6-A. Excel defeated one of those teams, Christian Heritage, by 24 points.
Woodland was another one of Bartow County’s undersized teams after losing four out of five starters from the previous season, including 6-foot-8 center Carrod Watson. Relying mostly on quick guards to pressure opposing teams, the Wildcats posted the county’s second-best defense in terms of total points allowed.
Woodland finished with a record of 5-19 and went 1-11 in Region 7-AAAA.
Adairsville, meanwhile, came within one win from qualifying for the state tournament, losing by just five points to Ringgold in the Region 6-AAA quarterfinals. The Tigers finished with a 9-19 overall record and went 3-13 in region play.
Adairsville had big intracounty wins against Excel and Woodland.
CO-PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
Darius Thrower — Excel
It did not take too much of his senior season for Thrower to etch his name into the Excel record books. He broke the school’s all-time scoring record early in the season, despite not playing his whole career for the Eagles. He also broke his own record for most points in a game at Excel when he scored 37, 30 in the second half, in a win over Mount Zion.
Thrower’s shooting and scoring abilities were essential to Excel the entire season, but they were particularly important when Excel needed a big basket. He hit the game-winning, buzzer-beating 3 against Class 6A North Paulding for a 54-53 win Dec. 1. Thrower also put in 30 points in Excel’s biggest win of the season against Christian Heritage.
Thrower scored over 500 points this season and close to 2,000 for his career. He averaged 19.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists this year.
“He was our go-to guy. Whenever we needed a big shot to start a run for us or stop a run, Darius was kind of our bailout guy,” Sanders said. “We knew he could make a play. If he wasn’t scoring, what was overlooked a lot this year was his passing ability. His passing ability really improved a lot this year and put us in positions to be successful.”
Mike Sims — Cass
Region 7-AAAAA defenses were set up to stop Cass’ senior wing, but Sims still was able to drain 70 3-pointers on the season and scored 16.5 points per game. The all-region selection shot 45 percent from beyond the arc this year. He also was Cass’ leading rebounder, often playing as a small-ball 4, and averaged 5.2 boards per game. His size and length at 6-foot-3 was a major benefit to the Colonels, as was his range that extended well beyond the 3-point line.
In Cass’ biggest win this season against Creekview, Sims poured in 25 points and hit seven 3s.
He began to see varsity time as a shooting specialist during his sophomore year, but was able to develop his playmaking skills as a junior and senior. He registered 1.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game in his final year.
“Mike worked incredibly hard in the offseason. I think he’s always been a good shooter, but he worked incredibly hard from 3-point range,” Brock said. “Mike just put in so much effort to become a lethal 3-point shooter and was big for us. I think he stepped up into a leadership role, which was relatively new to him. He did a good job of keeping those guys in line away from the court, things that you don’t always see.”
Ronald Hardin — Adairsville
Hardin was the primary playmaker for the Tigers. He began the season coming off the bench to provide a spark, but moved into the starting lineup in the second half of the year and was the catalyst for much of what Adairsville did offensively. The junior averaged 10.3 points and 2.4 assists per game to lead the team in both categories. In addition to his prowess on offense, he also was one of the most disruptive defensive players in Bartow, leading the county with 2.8 steals per game. He added 2.6 rebounds per game as well.
“Ronald was the leader of our team. As he went, the rest of our team did,” Adairsville head coach Reggie Wilkes said. “He was our offensive leader. He could get us started on defense, and basically, the ball went through him. ... He really played well over the Christmas break and into the region tournament. He had two pretty good games that helped us in the region tournament.”
Jaylon Pugh — Cartersville
Just a sophomore, Pugh was named the Region 7-AAAA Player of the Year, his second all-region selection. He was the top scorer and playmaker for the Canes, and shot an impressive 47 percent from 3. In a game against LaFayette, Pugh hit 10 from beyond the arc.
“That’s incredible,” Cartersville head coach Mike Tobin said of Pugh’s 47 percent shooting from 3. “The thing about it is, he penetrates so well too. So you can’t get all over him because, if you do that, he’ll go right by you.”
Later in the year against Southeast Whitfield, Pugh scored 20 points on 6-for-6 from the field, 3-for-3 from the 3-point line and 5-for-5 from the free throw line.
Overall, Pugh led the team with 15.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. He also averaged 1.6 steals per game.
“Jaylon had a good year last year and an even better year this year,” Tobin said of his sophomore captain. “Off the court, he’s a leader, great student, pushed the rest of the guys, leads by example. He played all summer, pushed himself to get better. We’re definitely proud to have him in the program. He’s a great role model for the younger kids on how to work hard and handle themselves off the court.”
Kobie Whitfield — Cartersville
After two knee injuries sustained during football season kept Whitfield from trying out for the basketball team as a sophomore and junior, Tobin was not expecting the talented athlete to come out as a senior. However, Whitfield’s presence made a major impact on the Canes as he averaged 8.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and two steals per game and was named all-region.
Whitfield was a scoring presence near the elbow and was an adept passer when catching the ball in the middle of opposing defenses. He stuffed the stat sheet regulary as he had 16 points and 12 rebounds in the region tournament semifinals; 10 points, 13 rebounds, three steals, two blocks and two assists in an important region win over Heritage; scored 12 fourth-quarter points in his first game of the season against Pickens to help pull off a narrow region win; and hit a buzzer-beating 3 to bring Rome to overtime.
“He was an outstanding rebounder for us. I think, in the region semis, he led us in scoring, rebounds, assists and steals that game, Tobin said of Whitfield. “It was a pleasant surprise that he came out because I didn’t think he was going to with the issues with the knee. We definitely feel like we don’t win our region championship without him.”
Cade Archer — Cartersville
Archer was a prominent scoring presence for Cartersville in his senior year. He was a regular threat to score double figures and averaged 10.3 points per game. He helped open the floor with his 3-point shooting, making 40 on the year. He also could help out with ballhandling duties and averaged 2.2 assists. After primarily being a spot-up shooter his junior year, Archer created more off the dribble as a senior and shot 51 percent on 2-point field goals. In addition to his offensive game, he averaged 3.3 rebounds and one steal per game.
“Cade worked his tail off all summer,” Tobin said of Archer. “He was a captain for us. He shot the ball well for us. He competed hard. He was an all-region guy and played in the [Northwest Georgia Tip-off Club Senior All-Star Game].”
C.J. Bennett — Cass
Bennet had a soft touch from the perimeter, and when he got hot, he could score points in a hurry. That was on display during some Bartow County rivalry games this season as he had 17 points and 10 rebounds against Cartersville and scored 21 against Adairsville. Bennett also scored 24 points against Dalton, including 17 in the second half to nearly bring Cass back from a 27-point deficit.
According to Brock, Bennett was more than just a shooter and scorer, bringing defense and playmaking to the Colonels.
“I think C.J. is probably the most well-rounded player we have offensively and defensively,” Brock said. “He’s a guy that, when he was on and hitting shots, we were really, really tough to beat. ... Credit to him for working on his game and being able to be a pretty good 3-point shooter, and also doing the little things for us, whether it be getting rebounds or steals. Whatever it needed to be, he could do everything for us and his numbers kind of showed that.”
The junior guard averaged 11.5 points on the year with 3.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.5 steals on the year.
Ashton Burley — Cass
The sophomore point guard missed some of the season due to injury, but flashed his potential when he was on the court. He was the Colonels’ top playmaker off the dribble, and displayed his court vision and defensive instincts each time he took the court. He averaged 10.1 points, 5.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 2.7 steals per game. Burley was named honorable mention all-region, and according to Brock, made strides this season as the team’s floor general.
“It was tough for him to string some games together when he was consistently healthy. I think he was definitely playing his best basketball at the end of the season,” Brock said. “For me, it was kind of developing him into a point guard and a leader. His freshman year, he kind of burst on to the scene. He had to carry a whole lot more of the burden of running the team on the court and getting us in some spots, and doing things he may not be used to be doing at this level. He improved leaps and bounds at the end of the year from that standpoint.”
Caleb West — Excel
West continued to do as a senior what he had done over the course of his career at Excel — use his versatility to score, create for his teammates, rebound and defend. The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 12.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. He was second on the team in both assists and rebounds, helping an undersized Excel team keep up on the boards with some much taller teams. He was able to both shoot and drive to the basket, and his size and versatility served him well on the defensive end in defending guards or bigger players.
“His scoring and his passing ability, but primarily his ball handling and passing ability, was what we depended on him for this year,” Sanders said. “Also, his defense and his rebounding was critical in a lot of our close games — his defensive capability and being able to guard multiple positions. He could guard 1-3 and be perfectly fine with being able to rebound. If he rebounded, a lot of times, he would be able to start our transition break and get us easy baskets. He was kind of our glue guy that kept everything going for us.”
Chris Hale — Excel
The senior guard was tied for the county lead in assists with 5.1 assists, fourth in the county with 14.2 points per game, and added 3.7 rebounds per game. He was able to create off the dribble or pull up from 3, and often scored points in bunches. He scored 29 in a win against Walker, and scored 17 in Excel’s big region win over Christian Heritage.
“Chris was our energy guy, and if we had Chris on a good night, chances are we were going to be in a real good position to go out and give ourselves a chance to be successful,” Sanders said. “He was one of the ones that, if we got on a nice 6-0 run, he would turn that into a 12-0 run quickly. Also, his assist-to-turnover ratio improved dramatically this year. I think that just came from a better understanding of the game and to be able to put his teammates in a better position. A lot of times, he would be asked to defend the best guard on opposing teams. ... His defensive capabilities were tremendous for us.”
Jonathan Pritchett — Woodland
Pritchett was the lone returning starter off last season’s Wildcats, and stepped into a significantly bigger role as a senior. He averaged 10.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game.
Pritchett could use his quickness to lead the break in transition or penetrate the defense in the halfcourt, but also could stop and pop to pull up from 3. He especially started to assert himself on the offensive end of the floor late in the year. He had back-to-back 21 points games in early February and scored 24 points in a game against Pepperell.
“He did a really good job of running the offense. Every trip up the floor, the ball was in his hands,” Woodland head coach John Howard said of Pritchett. “He kind of led the offense at point guard and also scored. He led us in assists. ... He was the only starter coming back this season, so a lot was put on his shoulders and he did a good job.”
HONORABLE MENTION: Adairsville — Cody Henderson, Hunter Hice, Cole Hewatt; Cartersville — Travon Davis, Trase Fezzia; Woodland — Jarvis James, Brady Jernigan.