By Brian Paglia and
Aaron Horton knew what he was getting into as he got ready for his junior year on the Eagle's Landing boys basketball team.
That summer, Horton for the first time met a group of rising freshmen full of talent and promise that would re-shape the complexion of the Golden Eagles roster until 2013. It was a well-rounded group with dynamic guards (Isaiah Dennis, Marquis Griffin), a skilled small forward (Eric Wortham) and a 6-foot-8 center (Desmond Ringer), among others.
Despite the influx of young players, Eagle's Landing coach Clay Crump opened up competition. Players would have to earn their role on the team, regardless of class.
"We knew what we were getting into when we played for Coach Crump," Horton said. "We knew we were going to get Desmond and Eric when they were coming up as ninth graders. They're just part of the team. They came in and fulfilled their roles."
Those freshmen helped orchestrate a 12-win improvement from the previous season, an appearance in the Region 4-AAA championship game and the program's first state playoff berth.
That group also continues to serve as evidence that teams don't have to compromise success when getting younger.
"It's a unique situation for them to be that young and that good," Crump said. "We had some guys above them that saw they were better. ... You don't not play a kid because it's someone else's turn. You play the person who's best for the position and gives you the greater chance to win, and that's been them."
Indeed, young players have been making an impact all over the Southern Crescent this season.
Jonesboro's boys team has spent much of the season ranked with sophomore guards Patrick Petty and Cameron Sutton starting. The North Clayton boys have remained successful much in part to sophomore forward Devin Lewis' rebounding.
The sixth-ranked Forest Park girls start freshman Kayla Potts at point guard but haven't missed a beat coming off last season's Class AAAA semifinals appearance.
"We got a lot of faith in Kayla," Forest Park junior Ashlee Cole said. "She is our point guard. She can play and she gives us scoring when we need to score."
Coaches don't seem to have any reservations about playing young, inexperienced players, including freshmen.
Anytime you got a freshman capable of playing on this level, you should play them," Forest Park coach Steven Cole said. "You are helping your team build for the future."
Earlier this season, Mundy's Mill coach Julius Omotayo pulled sophomore Moneshia Dyer from the JV to run the point guard position for the Lady Tigers. With her in the lineup, the team has won seven of their last 10 games.
"My thinking is that whoever can get the job done will play," Omotayo said. "Our team is comfortable with her in there. She adds another concept to the team."
Lewis, a 6-foot-4 forward, did a lot of sitting and watching last season as the Eagles had a mostly senior-laden team. The time on the bench and in practice against the more experienced players also helped Lewis, who is nicknamed "Tank," mature as a player.
Growing up, he was always bigger than most of the other players on the court, and could dominate with his size and strength. But that wasn't the case as a freshman last season on the varsity level.
"I really didn't like to work as hard last year, because I was just used to using my size advantage," Lewis said. "Once I got to high school, I realized that I had to step my game up if I wanted to compete."
Navigating that transition to varsity competition is just one of the challenges of assimilating young talent on a team.
It also takes a team with mature veterans, coaches said, to accept younger teammates in prominent roles.
You have to have seniors that are willing to set aside what they think is their time," Crump said. "You can't have a ton of jealousy."
But when the mix is right, when young talent and mature veterans find a way to co-exist, the results can be worth the growing pains.
"It's been great. I hardly notice that they're freshmen and sophomores," Horton said. "I just think of them as another person. They play like seniors."
Isaiah Dennis, Eagle's Landing: Since entering the starting lineup Dec. 10, the Golden Eagles are 11-1. The sophomore guard averages 13 points and three steals a game and is quickly developing well-rounded offensive skills that make him one of the best under-the-radar prospects in Georgia.
Devin Lewis, North Clayton: The 6-4 sophomore has moved into a part-time starting role with the Eagles this season after mostly being a reserve last season. He is starting to develop more of his offensive skills, but is mainly counted on for his rebounding strength.
Dante Ottley, Morrow: Ottley is a second-year starter for the Mustangs. The 6-foot-7 sophomore center averages 12 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks per game and is taking on an increasingly critical role offensively for the Mustangs.
Desmond Ringer, Eagle's Landing: Another second-year starting sophomore, the 6-foot-8 center was putting together a great season (12 ppg, 11 rpb, 3 bpg) before sustaining a slight ACL tear in his left knee ended his season. Regardless, Ringer has shown enough to be considered one of the top prospects in the class of 2013 in Georgia.
Darrius Sizemore, Mundy's Mill: Tigers coach Tu Willingham calls his sophomore guard/forward the "new hybrid type" player. The 6-5 sophomore has the combination of size, athleticism and skills that has earned him a starting spot this season. He is averaging 14.8 points and 5.5 rebounds, which Willingham said has allowed the team to become competitive.
Cameron Sutton, Jonesboro: One of the most athletic players in the area. The sophomore is a two-year starter for the Cardinals and is considered one of their top defensive players. A three-sport standout in basketball, football and baseball.
Briana Benson, Jonesboro: Averaging 11.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, the sophomore guard/forward has been one of the team's most consistent players on a Lady Cardinals team that doesn't have any seniors. Aside from her scoring, Cardinals coach Michael House looks for her on-court leadership for a young team.
Sibahya Broderick, Locust Grove: She toils on a second-year team, but the sophomore forward averages a double-double and has the skills to play against just about anyone.
Moneshia Dyer, Mundy's Mill: She moved into the starting point guard position over the Christmas break. The sophomore is averaging seven points a game and had a career-high 15 against Forest Park on Tuesday. As Dyer has grasped the offense, junior Briana McQueen plays the shooting guard position for more scoring punch.
Miracle Johnson, Stockbridge: Johnson's on-court intensity never wanes, which earned the forward a prominent role coming off the bench last season. Now a starter, the sophomore averages nine points and 10 rebounds per game.
Morgan Jones, Woodland: The Lady Wolfpack have taken the next step to becoming a region contender, and Jones is a big reason why. The sophomore guard is long, quick and has great shooting range.
Kayla Potts, Forest Park: Was one of the top middle school players last season in the county. She moved into the starting role early in the season and is one reason the Lady Panthers have remained in the state rankings. Plays with a lot of poise despite not having any varsity experience for the region contending team.
Compiled by Brian Paglia and Derrick Mahone