By Brian Paglia
Talent returns in droves for teams in Henry and Clayton counties. Nine teams return their top scorer from last season. Four first-team All-Southern Crescent players return, five second-team players return, as does the reigning Henry County player of the year, Stockbridge's Chris Davis.
So while the natural fluctuation of talent has struck some Southern Crescent teams, several more look all too similar to their 2008-09 version.
Nobody returns more of its team than Stockbridge. The only glaring loss for the Tigers is the graduation of forward Kevin Burke. The 6-foot-4 athletic forward created mismatches in the post, using his quickness to burst by slower defenders.
But Burke was the only senior on a Stockbridge team that went 18-12 last season and reached the Sweet Sixteen of the Class AAAA playoffs. With 13 players returning, including Davis, Tigers second-year coach Duane Kelley believes his team's desire may be the key to their season.
"I hope they don't think that because we had a decent season we're going to be automatically good," Kelley said. "I think we're going to be a better team, but that doesn't necessarily mean a jump in wins. It's putting it on paper versus putting it on the court."
Davis was a potent weapon on offense last season. Opposing teams in Region 4-AAAA focused much of their attention on defense to stopping Davis during his breakout year. Even with the increased attention, Davis scored 20 points a game and led the Tigers to their first playoff appearance since 2002-03.
Kelley thinks Davis should be even better this season.
"I think the best of him is yet to come. I really believe that," Kelley said. "He's been in the weight room getting stronger and faster. He's the unquestioned leader. He's made the other players around him accountable. He's the first one to practice and the last one to leave."
But Stockbridge isn't the only team with the luxury of having the majority of its talent back.
North Clayton lost just one starter from last season. Ola, Luella, Woodland, Lovejoy, Henry County and Mundy's Mill return their leading scorers, as well as the majority of their starting lineup.
Infact, when Lovejoy boys basketball coach Rick Francis assesses his team's offense, he doesn't shy away from disclosing that three-year starter Cameron Solomon and four-year starter Morris Mitchell are the focal point for the Wildcats.
"Those are the guys," Francis said. "There's no hidden agenda."
Yet, with that experience returning comes questions of whether teams can meet loftier expectations.
Can Woodland's four returning starters replicate a 19-11 season with a trip to the playoffs from a year ago?
Will losing just one player give Mundy's Mill enough experience to rebound from a 5-20 season and return to prominence?
Can Henry County go farther than its run to the Elite Eight of the Class AA state tournament last season?
Woodland coach David Bice chooses to temper expectations for now.
"We are cautiously optimistic about our chances this year," Bice said.