By Derrick Mahone
As Stockbridge finished up practice on Tuesday evening, coach Duane Kelley gathered his team in a circle at midcourt. Just as the coach finished his post practice analyst, he pointed to a spectator on the sideline, and told his team about a conversation he had with him before last week's Region 4-AAAA tournament.
"I told that man that we were going to win the region champion, and he laughed at me," Kelley said.
The spectator nodded in agreement.
"I meant that," Kelley continued. "I wasn't saying that to be funny. We were in all the games we played this season. It wasn't like teams were blowing us out. We just didn't finish the game near the end of the season."
Not many believed that the Tigers could win the tournament, and earn the region's top seed going into the playoffs. Stockbridge didn't give anybody good reason after hitting a late season slump.
The Tigers entered the tournament having lost nine of its last 12 games.
Kelley said that his and the team's confidence never wavered during a rough stretch of the season.
"The attitude of the coach reflects the leadership, and what kind of coach would I be if I didn't believe in my players," Kelley said. "We corrected the things that needed to be addressed on the team. We stepped up mentally, and played with a lot of defensive intensity. In our mind, we were the best team in the region this season."
At the start of the season, the Tigers looked the part after winning nine of its first 10 games. But a late-season slump put the team's playoff chances in doubt.
Stockbridge defeated Alcovy in the quarterfinals to earn a state playoff spot before a win over regular season region champion and state-ranked North Clayton in the semifinals.
A 66-55 win over Dutchtown gave the Tigers their first region championship and earned them a first-round state playoff home game.
"This is the way all seasons want for their last season, a region championship," Tigers standout guard Chris Davis said. "The key for our success during the region tournament was our defense and we were able to finish games. Our goal this season was to win a region and state championship.
"We were able to fix our flaws. Winning helps everything. We don't have quitters on this team. Everybody wanted to win."
Stockbridge entered the region tournament as the No. 4 seed, and played it best game against North Clayton. The Tigers won 96-80 in a game it lead the whole way.
Ola coach Curt Miller is not surprised that Stockbridge was able to recover and win the region. He said that Stockbridge players Chris Davis and Donte Campbell are two of the better players in the region.
Davis, last season's Henry County Player of the Year, was named first team all-region while Campbell garnered second-team honors.
"I'm not at all surprised because they are very deep," Miller said.
A 10-day practice before the start of the region tournament gave the Tigers an opportunity to refocus on its goals. Kelley said the team spent a lot of time focusing on its defense.
"The intensity of defense really picked up in practice during that time," Kelley said. "A lot of our kids have been here and they weren't ready to go home. Our seniors played a big time part in helping us turn it around. They realized that we wasted the entire month of January."