Rod Hall and Coco Brown – the stars of the past two Laney teams to reach the state semifinals in 2010-11 – sat in the front row of the Macon Coliseum bleachers watching their old teammates roll to the first boys basketball state title in school history. Both of them knew it could have been them celebrating the Class AA championship.
“It’s like my dream, I wanted to win one and something we got a chance but never got to do,” said Hall, who just finished his freshman season at Clemson on Thursday and came to Macon to cheer on his old mates including his half brother Raheem Newton. “I wish I was out there so I could get me a ring, too.”
Brown, who will transfer from Georgia College to Indiana next season, had no doubt these guys would keep the Wildcats moving in the right direction.
“Last year we came to the Final Four and I saw the way they were playing and knew they’d be great,” he said. “Last year we came real close but this year they’re making history.”
This edition of the senior-laden Wildcats left no doubt Saturday night that they were the class of Class AA. After falling behind 2-0, Jammie West scored the next 11 points and Laney never looked back in beating Manchester 67-53. Letting a 25-point cushion drop to eight in a three-minute Manchester flurry in the fourth quarter was just the kind of test of mettle a championship team needs to answer in the clutch.
“It scared me for a minute, it did,” said West. “But I believe in my teammates. It was just a calling from God telling us we have to lock up because the game is not over.”
West and his teammates believe the entire season was a calling. Each of the past two years, the Wildcats got knocked out in the semifinals, the last time by a Buford team that should have been no match for Laney’s lineup.
But for all the talent Laney possessed, something was missing.
“The things we did last year were different,” West said. “See, we had talent so we didn’t have to work like that. It was all laid out for us. But we didn’t have that playoff atmosphere early in the year like we did this year. We were missing free throws early and we never improved. It killed us in the game against Buford when we got put out. This team here, we’ve been cutting wood since the summer time and it’s paid off.”
Second-year head coach Jerry Hunter calls this Laney squad “the best working group I’ve seen,” and it was that quality that people who expected a dropoff didn’t understand.
“These guys were the group that people paid less attention to but in the end they had everybody’s attention,” said Hunter. “(Last year) was the team that people predicted to win. When we came in and took the program over, those guys were talented. I felt like we still should have won, but as coaches we had to make some adjustments. We came back and saw what it took to get here and we knew what it takes to win.”
Laney got started on its quest to end the school’s title drought in the summer and kept building.
“We’ve been working hard since August and were ready to bust our butts every day to get back here,” said senior center Shaquille Cook.
Said West: “Nobody in the state of Georgia worked harder than us.”
Laney’s girls previously owned the only two state titles in school history, winning Georgia Interscholastic Association titles during the segregation era in 1956 and ’61. The boys had never made a championship game in three prior trips to the final four (also 1982). Only four Richmond County boys teams have ever won GHSA state titles (Butler 1966, Josey 1978, Westside 1995 and Glenn Hills 2008) despite a parade of talent including several NBA-caliber players through the years.
“It means a lot because we made history,” said West of getting Laney’s name in the permanent record. “There’s been many MVPs and athletic people to come through Laney that they thought was going to do it. Everybody was doubting us and didn’t think that we were going to do it. Like coach said, we want them to sleep on us and we’re not even gonna wake them up. Keep wearing the right path and they can come see us in the state championship game when we’re holding up the trophy. It was true destiny and that’s what we did.”
West set the tone not only Saturday night with his 20 points but all week as they were determined to go farther than any Laney team before them.
“All we could do was think about the game,” he said. “I had stomach cramps from thinking about it too hard, throwing up inside before the game. That feeling was because we want it that bad. Just to complete this goal, man it just feels so good inside.”
Hunter cradled the trophy in his arms as he tried to explain what this breakthrough means to the Wildcats program.
“It’s big and right now it hasn’t set in yet,” he said. “But once we get back and really see the importance of this opportunity to make history, these guys are going to live at Laney a long time. They just established their legacy.”
Their old teammates were more proud than jealous.
“I’m not surprised,” said Hall. “I knew last year that they would get back and do it. They were still a group of good guys and I kind of pictured that they would still be good.”
Now that picture will adorn Laney’s trophy case forever.