By Brian Paglia
Luella boys basketball coach Jamond Sims waited for a season like this to come. Since he joined the Lions program as an assistant coach when the school opened in 2001, Luella has done little to distinguish itself in boys basketball in the county. Last season, the Lions struggled to an 8-18 record, its fourth with less than 10 wins in the past five seasons.
But on Friday, Luella plays No. 8-ranked Stockbridge (8-1, 6-0 in Region 4-AAAA) for the second time in the season's opening weeks with an improved reputation.
The Lions are 6-1 overall and 2-1 in Region 2-AAAAA, the best start in school history. And after a 99-89 victory over Stockbridge Nov. 24, Luella has won the last three meetings between the teams.
"The last couple of years we haven't been one of the great teams," Luella guard Bryan Barber said, "so for us to go and beat (Stockbridge) shows us that we can contend."
Luella's epoch of success against Stockbridge marks a stark departure from history. Long considered the county's premier boys basketball program, Stockbridge strung together seven straight wins against Luella from 2004-07 and most outcomes weren't compelling. The Tigers' average margin of victory during that span was 15.8 points.
Sims attributes the turnaround to a core of juniors and seniors that grew together in Luella's system. They came from Luella Middle, playing for middle school coach Stephen Adkins, and endured struggles when Sims gave them heavy playing time as sophomores.
Now, seniors C.J. Brown, Jamal Bilal, Jonathan Lonas, Michael Mbyumba, DeAndre Stroud and Montavious Williams have reached the potential Sims and Adkins saw in them years ago.
"This group has actually been a group that I've been waiting on for a long time," said Sims, who's in his fourth year as head coach. "It's kind of been like watching your child grow up."
None of them grew to be taller than 6-foot-4. They've become a guard-oriented group with balanced scoring. Junior Bryan Barber is the Lions' leading scorer with 13 points a game, Brown and Lonas average in double figures and Stroud contributes nine a game.
The years playing together has given the group an uncommon level of trust and comfort with each other. That's been a key component in the Lions' early success, for they've found themselves in close games virtually every night out. Beating Stockbridge by 10 is Luella's largest margin of victory this season.
"They've had close games from game one," Sims said. "So they've found a way to win."
Which leads Sims to believe that going forward the Lions still have room to improve.
"It's a pretty good start," Sims said, "but they're not playing the way that they're capable of playing."
Pretty good, indeed. Historical even. But the season is young, and the Lions know it.
So they are trying to temper excitement and resolve to maintain this historical run.
"I mean, we're really excited, but we just want to keep this going," Brown said. "We're not going to let our excitement get in the way and we're just going to keep winning."