The 2017 basketball season for Escambia County Middle School’s boys can be summed up in one word: Dominance.
The Eagles breezed through their 13-game regular-season schedule without breaking a hard sweat, then added another lopsided victory in a post-season tournament to wind up at 14-0, the best mark in school history. Their average winning margin was 40-plus points.
“I really expected this,” said Coach Layton Knight, in his second year as athletic director and boys coach. “I knew it was going to be a great season. When we were practicing (prior to the season) I said to myself that nobody was going to beat them.”
But the degree of dominance went even beyond the coach’s expectations, despite employment of a man-to-man defensive format that sparked Nolan Richardson’s University of Arkansas teams to five conference titles, three appearances in the NCAA’s Final Four and the national tournament title in 1994.
“We averaged 65 points a game, and our closet win was by 20 points,” Knight said. “Our defense, the man-press, was the key. A normal middle school team is not prepared for that. We played a strictly ‘man’ defense, and it’s hard to find a team at that age that plays man. For most offenses, that’s impossible to overcome; they’re use to a zone defense.”
The ECMS coach, who admitted that he “thinks we’re going to be good for at least another year or two,” said his most difficult job during the past season was not letting his players get too full of themselves.
“I was really pleased but I didn’t let them know that,” he said. “I tried to keep them focused on one game at a time, no matter how bad we beat the other team. Our starters usually only played two quarters; I put the younger players in and let them shoot a little.”
Another sign that the season was a success came when three Eagles — Sheldon Williams, Jacob Dirden and Tyson Moore — were elevated to the Escambia County High School junior varsity team and “are contributing really good” at that level.
Knight agreed that most success or failure in middle school athletics goes unnoticed, but pointed out that a successful season can pay many intangible dividends.
“A lot of people don’t understand how critical middle-school basketball is,” he said. “It’s the starting block. If you treat it right, it will benefit the kids in the long run.”