Blue Devils to make 3rd-ever state semi-finals appearance
By JOSH FRYE
Escambia County High School survived a field goal drought that lasted more than 5 minutes to hold off Class 4A Region 1 foe Williamson by a 53-44 margin last Thursday (February 24) and win the AHSAA Class 4A Southwest Regional Championship and a berth in the state semifinals. The championship win last week marks the third regional championship win in school history for the Blue Devils. The last regional championship win came in 2013 when the Blue Devils defeated Wilcox Central, 65-61.
According to first-year varsity head coach Layton Knight, the win is a big deal to the team, school and community.
“We have worked really, really hard to get to this point,” Knight said. “We have had to beat them (Williamson) on four separate occasions this season. With that team, it is almost unheard of because of how good they are. We are blessed with a great team this season and a lot of really good coaches and a huge support system from the community and the school.”
Knight stressed that even though the achievements for the team have more than exceeded expectations so far, the big picture has not yet been met. Knight and assistant coach Keyon Thompson stressed that the main goal for the team is to gain the school’s first Class 4A basketball state championship. Knight and Thompson both added that not only has it been a long-awaited goal, but that the team, school and community deserve a championship.
“After winning the regional championship last week, we were extremely excited,” Knight said. “However, the big picture is still in the balance and instead of basking in the glory of a regional championship, we want to stay focused on the big prize at hand. We have a chance to do something great this week and we are hungry. We are taking one game at a time and we still have one more game to play before we can get our feet into the big show.”
During last week’s win, Hakeem Johnson led the Blue Devils in scoring with 20 points, 1 blocked shot and 3 steals. Sheldon Williams, who was double-teamed in the first half by a desperate Williamson defense, wound up with 20 points and pulled down 17 rebounds (15 off the defensive glass).
Johnson sank 6-of-6 free throws in the final period, while Sheldon Williams was 4-for-4 from the line.
ECHS, now 25-4 on the season, also got 4 points, 9 rebounds (all defensive), 3 blocked shots and a steal from Stephen Williams. Connor McPherson also scored 4 points and had 3 defensive rebounds and a steal. Kaiden Arnold put 4 points on the board, while Jacob Dirden scored 1 point and added 3 assists and 3 rebounds.
According to Thompson, Williamson desperately tried to contain ECHS’s top shooters, but failed in that the Blue Devils have been able to create a roster that contains scoring players who are stationed all over the court.
Thompson also added that the main factor that contributed to the victory for ECHS came during the fourth quarter of the game when Johnson and Sheldon Williams made up for majority of the Blue Devils’ points through a perfect series of Johnson’s free throws and a series of Williams’ layups.
ECHS was to play Haleyville Tuesday, March 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex in Birmingham. At Atmore News’ press deadline, that game was yet to be played. Updates and links to coverage of that game and the state championship game, if ECHS advances, can be viewed on the Atmore News’ Facebook page.
Haleyville (25-7), earned its slot in the semifinals with a 55-54 win over Brooks High last Wednesday (February 23). The winner of Tuesday’s (March 1) game will advance into the state championship game which will be played this Friday, March 4, at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex in Birmingham at 5:45 p.m.
News photo by Ditto Gorme