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Veteran Yellow Jackets to face a demanding schedule designed to prepare them for the post-season challenge

Zondrick Garrett rejects a shot on the first play of Oxford’s June play dates. On the cover, Garrett and Eugene Leonard (12) provide the Jackets a formidable combination. (Photos by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

OXFORD – The T-shirt coach Joel Van Meter chose to wear for the first day of his team’s summer play dates was from last year, but the message it conveyed was just as poignant Tuesday as it was when the shirt was new.

“Finish” was the singular word across the otherwise plain black athletic tee.

While the slogan on this year’s shirt will be different the “Finish” line is just as appropriate considering the way the Yellow Jackets played the last time they were on the floor.

It was in the Class 6A Northeast Regional final and the Jackets were “rattled.” They were held to a season-low 25 points and scored only six points in the second half.

“Two years ago we lost our last three games of the season leading by double figures at some point in every game and (the next year) we wanted to finish; we wanted to finish the course of the race,” Van Meter said, explaining the slogan’s origin. “I thought we were just happy with being successful the year before. It was successful, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think we finished.

“Last year, Parker I thought rattled us. They got the tip and dunk and I thought our kids were like ‘I’ve never seen that.’”

This summer – and the schedule this winter – is all about playing the best teams they can find so nothing rattles the veteran Jackets when they get to the most important part of the season. They return all but two regulars off last year’s team.

The first day of summer games didn’t go well on the scoreboard – they lost to Sylacauga 53-36 and Talladega 53-51, two teams that went to the Class 5A Final Four last year – but it’s not all about the scoreboard at this stage. It’s about getting comfortable with the new material the coaches have introduced and playing for the long term.

They were up 12 in the second half with a running clock against Talladega. They would have done better if they turned the game into a track meet, but that wouldn’t help them down the road. Instead, Van Meter subbed his entire starting five to give the second group some minutes and by the time the starters returned the Tigers were up three and never lost the lead.

The Yellow Jackets are looking for Eugene Leonard to expand his role as a point guard this season. (Photo by B.J. Franklin)

“I think it just tells you it’s the summer,” Van Meter said. “Last year was the best summer we’ve had since I’ve been here and to be honest with you what we did last summer is played up and down (the floor). This summer (the coaching staff) got together (and decided) we need to play certain ways against whoever we play against so we can play different styles.

“Basketball is a game of fluid movement with the ball and body movement. That’s why Sacred Heart was so good. They could play fast, then all of a sudden D.J. (Heath) slows it down, they set a screen and – boom – Kevion (Nolan) hits a 3; that’s basketball IQ. We’ve got to get to that point. We’re not there yet, we’re going to spend the whole summer trying to get there, and the fall too, but if we do get there …”

The turning point in the Jackets’ run last year came when they played in a holiday tournament in Huntsville against some of the best teams in the state and held their own. The upcoming 2017-18 schedule is a lot like that. They’ll play White Plains, Hoover, 3A state runnerup Plainview, Alexandria, Hazel Green, 7A state semifinalist Vestavia Hills, Talladega, Gadsden City and Fort Payne and go back to that tournament in Huntsville. “It’ll be fun,” VanMeter said.

“We’re better when we’ve got the guys we have coming back who have played the games they’ve played to this point,” Van Meter said. “It’s like Ralph’s (Graves’) group (at Sacred Heart). As seventh, eighth, ninth-graders they were good, but not nearly what they were going to be. Three years of tough competition and then they figured it all out. That was my whole thought process in this.”

Point guard Eugene Leonard has it figured out. It will be his role this year to become more of what Van Meter calls a “facilitator,” a point guard in the truest sense of floor generalship that should get him looks for the next level. When rising sophomore post Zondrick Garrett gets it figured out he might become one the best players in the state by the time he’s a senior.

Garrett was somewhat of a secret last season, but every time he stepped on the floor, especially on the big stage, he looked like he belonged. He scored 516 points (averaging 14.8), grabbed 130 rebounds, dished 170 assists and shot 165-of-350 from the field (36-90 from 3-point range).

The challenge for the Jackets this year is to get him the touches he needs in the right spots because, VanMeter said, “when he touches it there’s nothing but good stuff that happens.”

Garrett already looked in midseason form on Tuesday’s first day of June workouts. The very first play of the Jackets’ first game he stood his ground and rejected a Sylacauga shot back to midcourt.

“I’m still trying to get use to everything we’re doing now, trying to get better,” Garrett said. “I’m just trying to evolve as things go along. I’ve got a long way to go. I’m just trying to do what I can do every day and get on this floor and play.”

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