Drew Titans

Head Coach: Michael Zachary (third season)

2016 Record: 13-10 (lost to LaGrange in the first round of the state tournament)

The Drew Titans looked like a potential state championship contender after a 9-1 start last year, but finished the year 4-9 and with a loss to LaGrange in the first round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs.

Drew must replace three key players from last year’s team, including leading scorer James Ruiz (22.3 PPG) and All-County selections Jeremy Joyner and Bryson Duckworth. Head coach Michael Zachary said he knows a challenge awaits him this season, but that he’s excited to coach a new group of players.

“I’ve observed that this group of guys, although they’re younger, they are more concerned with holding each other accountable,” said Zachary. “Whereas we had a lot of individual goals and a lot of individuals on the team last year, these guys work together and hold each other accountable.”

Drew will count on junior William Black (10.3 PPG) to pick up the scoring in Ruiz’s absence, although Zachary said he thinks this year’s team will have more than one reliable scoring option.

“I think when we get into tough crunches in games, instead of relying on one guy and if he’s on or off, this gives us more options and it kind of puts us in better positions to close out games,” he said.

Elite Scholars Academy

Head Coach: Jason Greenlee (second season)

2016 Record: 8-11

Elite Scholars Academy will look to improve on last year’s record this year. Under head coach Jason Greenlee, ESA won eight games and was competitive in many others.

“Last year was a lot of youth, a lot of inexperience. We had six games where we lost the game in the last few seconds where we just couldn’t close,” said Greenlee. “This year, we have that experience. Kids are more confident and they have a higher basketball IQ. They are ready to finish, they are angry and they are ready to compete for a championship.”

ESA will compete in Region 5-A Public for the first time this season.

Forest Park Panthers

Head Coach: Stephen Love (fourth season)

2016 Record: 7-19

Forest Park High was highly competitive last season despite its 7-19 record. The Panthers lost 15 games by less than 10 points last year, so head coach Stephen Love is hoping to see his team finish off games this season.

“It’s more of a commitment to the process,” said Love. “That is what we’re focusing on this year, committing to the process.”

Love will be pleased to see the return of senior Avery Wilson, who scored 19.6 points per game last season. Wilson will be asked to take on even more responsibility with the losses of Stephen McDonald and James Ragland.

“I say this to him all the time, but he’s a magnet,” said Love regarding Wilson’s importance to the team. “If he moves and does the things he’s supposed to do, the ball will come back to him. When he does, it opens up opportunities for other people.”

Jonesboro Cardinals

Head Coach: Dan Maehlman (12th season)

2016 Record: 28-5 (lost to Liberty County in the state championship)

Jonesboro came up just short in its pursuit of a third straight championship last season. Head coach Dan Maehlman will need to replace several key seniors from last season’s team, but is looking forward to integrating new faces into the mix.

“The kids, the way they’ve worked from playing in the summer all the way up until now, the transformation of the young kids, getting better and just how they all get along with each other, I’m really looking forward to it,” he said.

The Cardinals will be able to rely on star senior forward M.J. Walker. Walker is a two-time Player of the Year award winner in Clayton County and averaged 22.3 points per game last season. Junior Jamari Smith (9.2 points per game) is Jonesboro’s only other returning starter.

“We’re young. We lost seven seniors,” said Maehlman. “We have M.J. and Jamari and that’s it. The rest of our kids are young, juniors and sophomores.”

Lovejoy transfer Jaylon Terrell, junior guard Myles Black and junior forward Jamari Mosley will be given more responsibilities this season.

Lovejoy Wildcats

Head Coach: John Holladay (first season)

2016 Record: 8-18 (lost to Westlake in the first round of the state tournament)

The Wildcats made the Class AAAAAA playoffs despite an 8-18 record last season. First-year head coach John Holladay will replace Greg Freeman, who left after one season to coach Creekside.

Holladay said he’s been pleased with what he’s seen from his core of returning players so far in the offseason.

“My first impression is we have a lot of hard workers,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of work, new adjustments, new coach and me getting used to them. I know the kids personally from teaching there, but as far as basketball players I’m learning them and they’re learning my style.”

Lovejoy will look to play faster this season, and will need players like Trevin Williams and Jacorey Smith to step into leadership roles as the Wildcats move into a competitive Region 4-AAAAAA.

“We want to be upbeat and aggressive, upbeat and aggressive,” said Holladay. “We have a lot of interchangeable players because a lot of our players are around the same size. We want to be up and down the floor.”

Morrow Mustangs

Head Coach: Creswell Foy (fifth season)

2016 Record: 22-8 (lost to Allatoona in the Sweet 16 of the state tournament)

The Mustangs were one of the biggest surprises in the state last season, as a young roster won 22 games and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the Class AAAAA state tournament.

The majority of Morrow’s core returns for the 2016-17 season, although serious injuries to senior Stanley Henderson and junior R.J. Glover will dampen the program’s hopes slightly. Glover and Henderson led the team in scoring last season and will likely miss the entire campaign.

Even with those injuries, Morrow has plenty of firepower returning, including senior guard Di’Jon Brown and junior forwards Rico Carter and Marlon Lewis.

“D’Jon played a lot last year, Marlon played a lot last year, Rico played a lot last year. That’s why I do it like that, playing guys early, because you never know what might happen,” said head coach Creswell Foy. “We’re still going to be alright and we should make some noise.”

Mount Zion Bulldogs

Head Coach: Maurice Triche (fifth season)

2016 Record: 8-19

Key Returners: Demaje Carter, Kendall Norrington, Jakobe West

Mount Zion went through a rebuilding season a year ago. The Bulldogs started the campaign with a 1-11 record, but finished 7-8 and saw their ninth grade squad win the Clayton County championship.

“I’m expecting us to be much better than we were last year. We have nine to 10 people returning,” said head coach Maurice Triche. “We’re still young. Our sophomores took us to a championship game for the first time since I’ve been here, the freshman won the championship. The future is right in front of us.”

Mundy’s Mill Tigers

Head Coach: Dwight Callaway (first year)

2016 Record: 19-11 (lost to Cedar Shoals in the Sweet 16 of the state tournament)

Dwight Callaway will take over the Mundy’s Mill program after spending the last few years coaching various other sports at Lovejoy. Callaway’s background is in basketball, though, and he said he’s excited to return to the sideline this season.

“We’re looking to put our coaching style into play,” said Callaway. “We want to be disciplined and execute a lot and just let the guys know what transition basketball is all about. We’re a very young, inexperienced team, so I’m hoping a lot of them will step up to the plate and gain some great varsity experience.”

The Tigers advanced to the Class AAAAA Sweet 16 last season behind a strong senior class led by First Team All-County selection Kaelon Harris and guards Cartez Crane and Kierre Davis. Mundy’s Mill will look to seniors Tyree Keith and Mike Malolo to carry on the mantle for the program.

North Clayton Eagles

Head Coach: Martisse Troup (11th season)

2016 Record: 19-11 (lost to Morgan County in the Sweet 16 of the state tournament)

North Clayton High put together an excellent season last year, advancing to the Sweet 16 of the Class AAAA state playoffs. With star center and Lipscomb commit Ahsan Asadullah (15.1 PPG, 10 RPG) returning to lead the Eagles, head coach Martisse Troup is optimistic his team can be even better than last year’s squad.

“Expectations are going to be even greater than they were last year,” he said. “We lost in the Sweet 16 last year, we slipped up in the region championship and I felt that if we would have won the region we could have got to the Final Four, state championship game.”

Asadullah, along with seniors Jamal Buster, Alex Quaynor and Stanley Dede, will need to replace senior leaders such as Kindle Vildor, Jamarcus Sanders and Jalal Johnson on the floor this season.

“It’s basically going to come down to our guys buying in and believing defense is going to win the games,” said Troup. “Our non-region schedule is going to be tough. For me, it’s about playing against the best to test out my team.”

Riverdale Raiders

Head Coach: Derick Powell (second season)

2016 Record: 10-15

The Raiders showed improvement under Derick Powell last season and return several key players from that team. Powell said he’s excited to see how his players have developed as he enters his second season as head coach.

“I’m definitely excited,” he said. “Last year we established kind of a culture and some expectations. This year, the guys know me a little bit more and I know them a little bit better. They understand what my expectations are and have had a summer and some time to gel together as a team.”

Riverdale will be senior-heavy this season. James Johnson, Johnathan Foster, Dionte Turner and Jakwon Lipscomb are among the core of key returners, many of which have played together since middle school.

“They have been playing together since middle school and they’ve known each other for awhile,” said Powell. “Even last year I felt like the outsider coming in. We have started to mesh together. They are a family on and off the court and they spend a lot of time together and fight for one another.”

Luke Strickland is the sports editor of the Clayton News in Jonesboro and the Henry Herald in McDonough. He went to school at the University of Georgia.

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