BIRMINGHAM -- As the newly-minted Class 5A state champion, Sylacauga High School’s boys basketball team, which included eight seniors, took a humbling journey to its final destination.
Before they could hoist a trophy at half court of the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex today, the Aggies had to battle through a rough summer slate of play dates and practices.
“It just wasn’t a good summer,” Aggies head coach Will Copeland said in late June. “We’ve got guys coming back from last year and we’ve got a good nucleus of (junior varsity) kids coming back. Right now, it’s just not working out. We’re in the gym, we’re in the weight room and we’re working as hard as we can, (Assistant) Coach (Joel) Jones and I, to get this fixed.”
Somewhere, somehow, between then and now, all’s right with the world for the Aggies, who brought home the first state championship in 30 years for the program.
“It was a rough summer, but we started real ball Nov. 4,” Sylacauga senior guard Keaton Wilson said. “We came back from football, and our first words at our first practice were, ‘We’ve got to win it all.’ The seniors, we knew it was our last year, and we had to go out with a bang. We had to get the job done.”
Wilson, standing in the concourse of the BJCC, said it was amazing to be part of a group that brought the championship home and had a player among them with close ties to the 1988 title.
“This is legendary right here,” Wilson said. “We wanted it bad. Luke Tankersley on our team, his dad won one in 1988. We told Luke we were going to get him this one for him so he can match rings with his dad.”
Tankersley, whose biggest moment prior to Saturday’s win may have been his career-high 20-point performance against B.B. Comer in the Talladega County Tournament on Jan. 15, was all smiles as he took pictures with teammates, friends and family before boarding the bus back to Sylacauga. His dad, John Tankersley, played guard on the Aggies’ 1988 championship team.
“Everybody always talks about winning a state championship, but only a select few do,” Luke said. “It’s just special -- 30 years after my dad won one, we all get one.”
Senior forward Erron Bryant said the win felt good because from his recollection, this moment was something the group of seniors had dreamt about long before their final shot at it.
“We’ve been talking about this since eighth grade -- way, way back,” Bryant said. “It feels good to finally get one. Senior year. Our last game for the state championship. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Senior forward Malik Crawford, the Final Four MVP who finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds, an assist, a block and a steal, said he knew where the bar was set in the minds of his peers.
“All our seniors knew our season was going to end one way or the other,” he said. “Either we were going to be champions, or we weren’t ... We’ve got a great group of teammates, a great group of guys. We all stuck together, especially during the tough times.”
Darian Garrett, a senior guard who hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that kept the Aggies’ hopes alive in a 51-50 win over Booker T. Washington in a 5A Central Regional semifinal at the Dunn-Oliver Acadome on Feb. 15, said this win came with plenty of dedication.
“We’ve been running since August, and there’s a lot of hard work we’ve been doing,” Garrett said. “Malik (Crawford) and I have been on varsity since the ninth grade. I think it was just time to bring one to Sylacauga.”
Senior point guard Jordan Robinson, who stood flanked by fellow seniors Tommie Gaddis and Rod Milliner, said the win still hadn’t really set in yet as he searched for words to describe the euphoria.
“It’s a feeling I can’t explain,” he said.’
Milliner followed up with his thoughts on the win.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be part of (this win),” he said. “I’m just at a loss for words.”
Roughly 8 ½ months after an awful summer, the Aggies reign as awfully good champs.
“They’re a great bunch of guys,” Copeland said. “Just selfless, care about winning. Sometimes they get disappointed on playing time, but overall, they just (leave) a great legacy for next year’s group (with) what they did. That was what was big … I couldn’t be more proud of all of them -- all eight of them. It was a great job in general, but they’re great basketball players for us.”