By Jeffery Armstrong
Gani Lawal of the Riverdale Raiders boys basketball team didn't stand out a whole lot during the start of his freshman year last season, which was a monumental task since he's 6-foot-8.
Lawal was actually able to blend in last year, deferring to senior sharpshooters Sean Hightower, Bryan Gates and senior forwards Demarius Patrick and Mike Wisdom as Riverdale qualified for the state AAAAA playoffs. Lawal proved he could handle varsity action toward the end of last season, scoring in double figures in each game of the region and state playoffs and playing very well in that stretch. The Raiders went 18-11 last season, losing 63-48 to Tift County in the second round of the state playoffs.
As Riverdale prepares to play its home opener tonight at 6 p.m. against Region 2-AAAAA opponent Newton, Lawal knows this is the season where he will have to prove he can lead his team to victories, a pretty big task for a sophomore.
"I'm ready to go hard every night in order to help the team win. If that means I have to score 10 points and dish out 12 assists per game or score 25 with 12 rebounds, that's what I'll do," Lawal said. "I want us to win everything - the region, the region tournament and state."
Lawal said he prepared himself for being the focal point of the Raiders, which means putting up with the pushing, shoving and possible cheap shots from big players on other teams. He is still a bit thin (although he's bulked up to 205 pounds) but he said he's stronger than he was last season and he looks forward to tough play and double-teaming during the year.
"If they focus on me all the time, that will just open it up for my teammates," he said. "I know they will step up."
Lawal said he's stepped up his game in preparation for this season. He has worked on his perimeter shot this summer and he's worked on being more explosive. He's also improved his ball-handling this summer.
"I had to improve my game to help the team," Lawal said.
Another player who will be counted on to help Riverdale win will be senior point guard Trent Mitchell. Mitchell will be counted on to get Lawal the ball in the right spots and to provide leadership for a young team. Mitchell looks forward to his responsibilities this year and said he plans on making good decisions on the court.
"I'm ready to be the team leader. My job will be to pump this team up, so I can't get rattled on the court," said Mitchell. "In this region, we've got to be focused every night - we can't take a break at all."
Mitchell said Lawal was good as a freshman and he should be even better as a sophomore. He added that the rest of the team has to step up and take pressure off their tall teammate because Lawal can't win games by himself.
"We're responding to coach [David] Boyd well and if we keep listening to him, everything should be all right," Mitchell said. "We've seen it work."
The Raiders will definitely need to do what it takes to win in a region which features strong teams in Morrow, Tri-Cities, Lithonia and Redan. Newton has also been traditionally good as well and Douglass and Stephenson can't be overlooked.
"We just have to keep working hard and get better each day," said Lawal. "If we do that, we'll be okay."