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‘Dream season’

Young EA squads fall short in AISA Class A title quests

The team and coaches with their trophy, from left, front, Bradley Spann, Hayden Sheets, Cameran Bryan, Y’Darius McNeal, Jamarion Crenshaw, Traegan James, Isaac Radcliff, Ty McCants, Coach Jerome Webster; back, Coach Larry Nichols, Charlie Sasser, Ronta Watson, Quinton Odom, Luke Bell.
EA members of the AISA Class A All-Tournament Team, Ty McCants, left, and Ronta Watson

News Staff Writer

If Escambia Academy basketball coach Jerome Webster felt more like a camp counselor than a coach during the school’s just-ended “dream” season, there’s a good reason.
The second-year EA boys and girls coach led both teams on chases for their respective AISA Class A state championship, despite rosters consisting mainly of players too young to get a driver’s license.
The youthful Cougars, who were ranked 5th in the final Alabama Sports Writers Association regular season poll, played for the state title before falling 58-51 to Banks Academy, and the even younger Lady Cougars made it to the Final Four before being beaten 63-22 by defending state champion Lowndes Academy.
Both EA teams featured three seniors. There were also three juniors on the 12-member boys squad, but four of the players were freshmen and two were sophomores.
Most of the 11-member girls unit weren’t even old enough to get into a PG-13 movie without an adult, and one won’t be for another year. The Lady Cougars included a junior, a sophomore, three freshmen, two 8th-graders and a 7th-grader.
Webster agreed that coaching two young teams was physically taxing, the girls more so than the boys.
“The girls are why I’m gray-headed,” he laughed. “But I’m proud of those girls, every one of them. I usually don’t say much, but I posted on Facebook that I love them. Take a look at them, because you’re going to be seeing them for a long time.”
He was just as proud of the boys, who until the title game had lost only to higher-classification parochial schools in Pensacola and Mobile.
“We were 18-0 except for those two games,” he said. “The boys had a great season, once we got all the pieces together, and they’re still young. We’re losing three seniors, but the rest will all be back.”
Of their three setbacks, the third was the costliest.
The Cougars fought hard but couldn’t get past a stubborn Banks team, which claimed the school’s first AISA state title last Friday, February 9, at Cramton Bowl’s Multiplex in Montgomery.
EA went into the game with a height advantage and a better record than the 15-6 Jets and seemed poised to take control of the game when four Banks starters got into foul trouble during the first half. BA Coach Curtis Goldsmith substituted freely for them in the second half, though, and only one fouled out.
“They played smart in the second half,” Webster said. “Banks has a bunch of athletes who just won’t give up, and I was worried about them coming in. Plus, there were times when we didn’t hustle, and we didn’t stick to our game plan on the inside.”
The Cougars pulled to within a basket as senior Quinton Odom, who topped the 1,000-point “career” mark during the season, scored 11 of his 15 points in the final period, bringing an impressive EA crowd to its feet in anticipation. But the Jets scored two easy baskets off EA turnovers to create some breathing room and run out the clock.
“I thought we were fixing to take over when we got to within two,” Webster said. “We had a good crowd there, and they were all standing and yelling, but we had two turnovers that gave them [Banks] two layups and let them open it back up.”
Accenting the team’s youthfulness was sophomore Ronta Watson, whose 23-point performance made him EA’s leading scorer.
The young Lady Cougars clawed their way into the Final Four but ran into a buzzsaw when they played defending Class 1A champion Lowndes, one of the best independent school girls teams in the state, last Wednesday, February 7.
The scrappy EA bunch, who earned their way into the semifinals by defeating Crenshaw Academy 54-10 in first-round play and North River 50-38 in the Elite 8, trailed by a 29-8 score at halftime, and the Lady Rebels put the game further out of reach with a 19-7 third-period advantage.
The girls team’s youth was even more evident than the boys, as 7th-grader Krislynn Lee put 10 points on the board to lead the Lady Cougars in scoring. She and 9th-grader Zy McNeal (7 points) combined to score all but five of EA’s points.
Webster praised his opponent but expressed with a degree of certainty that EA’s girls would one day — maybe sooner than later — find themselves in a position to avenge the setback.
“Lowndes has a great team,” he said. “They are coached well, they work hard at practice, and they carry it onto the court. By the time our girls get a little older, we’ll probably meet them again at state. We might just meet them again next year.”