So far this season, North Oconee High School boys basketball head coach Rick Rasmussen likes what he sees in his team.
The Titans carried a 7-3 record entering this week. They experienced a three-game skid but bounced back with a victory over Elbert County High School just before Christmas.
North Oconee’s schedule to date includes a few close wins over quality opponents. As such, Rasmussen is pleased with the tenacity shown by his players.
“We've won a lot of close ball games, just gutting it out and making good decisions down the stretch,” Rasmussen said. “We've had a lot of hard-fought wins and a couple of tough losses. We're just hoping these things are gonna prepare us for the second half of the region schedule.”
The Titans’ lineup looks different this season.
They no longer have the services of Dylan Garrington and Jace Saxton, who graduated in May. Garrington left as the program’s all-time leading scorer with 1,444 and Saxton, who had a breakout senior season, finished with 1,328 career points – second all-time.
With Garrington and Saxton out of the picture, Rasmussen said there has been an adjustment period. The Titans have seen different players step into greater roles as a result, too.
“We lost two of the best players in North Oconee history in Dylan and Jace, and it's taken us some time to find some new scorers and for our role players to step up,” Rasmussen said. “For example, in our win at Elbert, Byrd Carter had his best game of the season. He had a career-high 20 points, so that was a big deal for us. ... Brodie Scott’s been a stalwart for us, averaging a double-double. I don't know the last time a kid averaged double figures in points and rebounds at North – maybe never. But he's well on a path to finish with the most rebounds in a season. ... Then, Jake Chandler is our leading scorer. Probably in our losses, Jake didn't shoot the ball as well. Part of what's happened is people have gone to a box-and-one (defense) and are basically smothering Jake and forcing him into tough shots.”
The Titans opened the season Nov. 20 with a 59-54 win over Stephens County.
They topped Athens Academy on Nov. 22, winning 81-60. The next day, they beat Clarke Central 48-42.
North Oconee earned a rivalry win over Oconee County High School on Nov. 30, beating the Warriors 66-64.
They extended their winning streak Dec. 2 with a 37-34 win over Monroe Area. North Oconee ran its winning streak to six games Dec. 7 with a 65-62 victory against Stephens County.
That gave North Oconee a 6-0 start, but the Titans soon hit a stumbling block.
In a rematch with Oconee County, the Titans fell 60-45.
They then lost their first Region 8-AAAA contests of the season, falling 59-55 to Madison County and 58-41 to Cedar Shoals.
The common theme of the Titans’ first 10 games was that most of them were close results. Rasmussen said the thin point differentials tested his new leaders’ late-game capabilities.
There have been more wins than losses so far, but Rasmussen said the team is still working to improve without Garrington and Saxton on the court.
“Losing those senior guards that graduated, we've had to find new ball handlers and new guys to make the big decisions down the stretch of the game,” Rasmussen said. “That's something we're trying to work through.”
Rasmussen knew that would be a point of emphasis, which is partly why he laid out a tough schedule early in the season.
This week, the Titans competed in the Big Orange Classic in Hoover, Alabama. The tournament concluded after press time Tuesday, but the Titans scored an upset victory over previously unbeaten Cullman High School on Monday, winning 53-52.
Rasmussen said that Cullman, Hoover High School and the other teams in the tournament would provide stiff competition for his team.
With those games, Rasmussen wanted to see the Titans make more progress across the board.
“It's just gonna make us tougher,” he said. “We're trying to get better at taking care of the basketball against pressure and being more well-rounded on offense. Then, we're working on our communication on defense, and rebounding will be really big.”
After completing the Big Orange Classic, the Titans will return to action Tuesday at Flowery Branch for their next region contest.
They will travel to Chestatee next Friday, Jan. 7, before hosting Elbert County at home next Saturday.