TUNNEL HILL, Ga. — If you're a high school basketball coach, would you prefer to have one main player you can always count on to come through when needed or a collection who give balance to a non-star-studded team?
Ryan Richards has had both as the boys' coach at Northwest Whitfield. Right now, after a 14-3 start to the current season, he prefers the latter.
The Bruins have no one averaging more than 14 points per game, despite a fast-paced style that regularly gets games into the 70s. However, they do have six guys averaging eight to 14 points, and each has led the team in scoring on a given night.
"In the past we've had one good shooter who could get 16-20 each night, but that made it easier for teams to defend," Richards said. "Now, on many nights we'll have four or five guys in double figures. As a coach, it's been a lot of fun because we have so many more options than we've had before, and the guys love it because they all stay more involved."
The Bruins, 4-0 in Region 7-AAAA, play 10-11 guys each night, helping them stay fresh and allowing them to maintain a fast pace in their offense and their man-to-man full-court defense. They also have experience, including three senior three-year starters in guards Tanner Quarles and Kaleb King and post O'Shea Hill.
"Having those seniors allows us to change things on the fly if we see a team doing something different or if we're doing something that isn't working," Richards said. "They give us great leadership and they're each very versatile."
Quarles, a deadly 3-point shooter, leads the team at 14 points per game, with the bruising Hill averaging 12 points and seven rebounds. King, who began the season as the starting point guard, has moved to the off guard and specializes in harassing the opposing team's best guard.
Junior Tevin McDaniel has stepped in at point and gives the team more quickness. Tanner Bailey, Caleb Strong and 6-foot-5, 240-pound post Dustin Stanley also are in the rotation.
"The big thing is we have a lot of fun together," said King, who also gets five to six rebounds per game despite being 5-8 and 145 pounds. "We have a lot of weapons. We've got two great shooters and two good post players and three guys who can run the point. So far, teams really don't know how to stop us because we can get points from a lot of different areas."
The other key ingredient to the team's nice start is being reunited with area teams in their region. Northwest played in Georgia's second-highest classification the past four seasons, making for long bus trips, near-empty gyms and an often tired team. Now, instead of traveling to Atlanta two nights a week, the Bruins are competing against area rivals Dalton and Southeast Whitfield, Heritage, LaFayette and Ridgeland.
The difference has been noticeable.
"The competition is still strong, but the grind that we experienced over the past two seasons in particular is gone," Richards said. "I know last year we had several trips where we left at noon and got back at midnight. It wore me out as a coach, so I know the kids were affected. Now they're fresh and motivated, and it's exciting to see."
King agreed and said the Bruins came into the season with a more realistic goal of not only reaching the postseason for the first time since 2008, but of also winning a region title.
"We knew we had the potential to be region champs, and so far there's no reason to believe we can't do it," he said. "It meant a lot know that, going in, we could compete in this region. We still have work to do, but we can get it done."
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...