By Brian Paglia
North Clayton boys basketball coach Martisse Troup considered it a calculated risk when he put eight sophomores on the varsity roster last season. For all the success the group had witnessed the season before in the Eagle's Final Four run, they were suddenly on their own, deserted by one of the program's most accomplished senior classes.
"I didn't really have too much of a senior class," Troup said of last season's team, "and only had a little bit of my junior class, so I just went with the young guys."
The group showed their youth in what Troup knew then and now was a rebuilding year. Finally given the spotlight, too many individuals coveted it. With each loss of a 9-15 debacle season, arguments flared amongst a group that grew up together on basketball courts.
"We were more selfish," Junior guard Zach Bradley said. "Everybody was out for themself last year."
But that same core of eight sophomores, now juniors, showed how much its grown in the first half of this season. North Clayton's 61-51 victory over Dutchtown Tuesday was its fifth straight region win, and behind juniors Zach Bradley, Jeffrey Newberry, Antwuan Murphy and Clarence Jackson, the Eagles (10-3, 5-1) have again established themselves as a front-runner to win the region.
"It's been really great to watch them grow," Troup said. "They've actually been playing together since they were in elementary school. So the team chemistry is really there and really gelling."
Troup and the Eagles thought a late-season run last year portended better things to come. North Clayton rallied at the end to win the Clayton County Tournament for the second straight year and lost to Forest Park by two points at the region tournament for the final spot in the state playoffs.
Time has done the rest. More time playing together on the same AAU teams. More time battling together in summer leagues and camps at Clayton State and Georgia State. With time came a better understanding of Troup's philosophies. Suddenly, the Eagles put it all together to win seven of its first games this season.
But time has also brought North Clayton hurdles it could never have imagined. There was the defection of star guard Andre Malone, who transferred to powerhouse South Atlanta in the wake of Clayton County's accreditation crisis. There was Emmanuel Dieke's early graduation, robbing North Clayton of its fiercest inside player when he enrolled at Georgia Tech early to begin his college football career.
There was the news that junior Torian Box's mother died of cancer Wednesday and freshman Marcus Hunt, who was averaging nearly 15 points a game, would be out with a broken finger suffered over Christmas break.
North Clayton has simply summoned a team chemistry it couldn't muster last season to endure and remain tied with Alcovy atop the region standings.
"It seemed we came together at the end of last season, but it was too late by then," Bradley said.
"That was motivation (for this season). Our coach has been tellling us that we can do it, we have all the pieces to go to state."
Bradley is just one of several pieces that comprise a balanced scoring attack. Bradley and Newberry both average in double figures. Antwaun Murphy became a starter after scoring in double figures most nights coming off the bench. Hunt showed infinite promise before his injury.
After relying on Malone much of last season, North Clayton is now relying on its core of juniors to return it to the state tournament.
"(Balance) is really benefitting us," Newberry said. "Last year, we looked up to one player. But now this year, we've got balanced scoring. We got a lot of people. We got Antwuan Murphy who can hit the 3, we got Zach who can drive. We can do it all really. Everybody can score."