Lakeside is 17-4 overall, 8-0 in region play, winners of 15 of the last 16 games and is ranked No. 5 in Class AAAAAA. That reads as a great resume for a high school basketball team in late January. It would be great for traditional powers like Laney, much less a school that has never won a state playoff game.
Well, that is exactly where the Lakeside basketball team stands as I type this column. Oh, and by the way, they are doing this with a first-year head coach. Jeff Williams was named coach this offseason, and he has the squad just three wins away from the school's first 20-win season. He will be the first to tell you he inherited a good situation. The previous coach, Jody Hilley, had this bunch going in the right direction, and most of the key players play for a solid AAU Team run by Lenny Brinson. However, Williams' impact should not be underestimated.
Williams is a 1994 graduate of Butler High School, where he played for some very talented Bulldog teams. His first foray into coaching was at Our Lady of Peace in North Augusta. There, Williams took over a team that had been winless the previous season. With Williams at the helm, OLP had an unbeaten regular season and made a deep playoff run. The following year, he took a job at Columbia Middle School, and Our Lady of Peace finished the season without a single victory. While at CMS, Williams got an offer to coach the junior varsity team at Greenbrier High School. Initially, he was going to decline. At the time, he was working full-time at CMS and was still in school finishing up work on his master's degree. However, at the urging of a friend, he took the job and it turned out to be a smart move. Coaching at Greenbrier afforded him the opportunity to meet the other coaches in Columbia County, including Hilley. Hilley stepped down in the summer as Lakeside's head coach and served on the committee to select his replacement. That man was Jeff Williams.
Williams immediately started to evaluate his team. He felt Lakeside had the talent in place to be successful. After all, rising sophomore Kalen Williams (16.2 ppg) was one of the top freshman in the state last season. Also, 6-foot-4 forward Deon Berrien (15.0 ppg, 12.0 rebounds), who missed the first half of last season, would have a full year on the court. Kresean Hall (11.8 ppg, 9.7 reb.), a player Williams has known his entire life, was back for his third year as a starter. Hall had been one of the team's top players his sophomore season but struggled at times last year to find his role after Kalen Williams had become the team's floor general and go-to-guy on offense.
Coach Williams talked with Hall about becoming more of a leader and not just being great on the offensive end of the floor but also taking pride in his defense. Hall had gotten into a bad habit of simply roaming the perimeter. Williams reminded Hall how tough he really was and let him know that for the Panthers to be successful, he was going to have to hit the glass and rebound. In Berrien's case, Williams let him know that he envisioned him grabbing a rebound and taking the ball down the floor. That was only possible because Berrien himself realized that he had a lot of work to do this offseason. He was a terrific athlete who could score, rebound and block shots, but he worked in the offseason to become a more complete player. He really focused on his ball handling, and his improvement in that area is obvious.
With Williams' "Big 3" improved and working together, the Panthers needed a few supporting players to put them over the top. They already had a great shooter in Brad Hilley (8.2 ppg) , whose shooting ability makes it tough for opponents to leave him to cut off drives. Opponents are also finding out that he is more athletic than he is given credit for and can take the ball to the floor if needed. Junior guard Brian Denham gave the team extra ball handling, Tucker Gilbert helps out inside and Jalen Nealious (9.9 ppg) provides energy and instant offense off the bench.
Williams also surrounded himself with a good coaching staff. In our conversation he had specific praise for the hard work of Kealan Diehl.
"I really think God placed me and Kealan and the rest of our staff together," Williams said.
The final piece of the puzzle was bringing the team together, making the group more like a family than just some guys who share the floor with for a couple of hours. A perfect example of Williams' approach was this Sunday. The team got together, not for a shootaround or film session, but to go bowling. Add this togetherness with the talent and you have a recipe for a solid basketball team. Now, as the postseason approaches, it is time to see just how far this team can go. I really think Lakeside can make a run.
"We really have not played a complete game yet, a game where everyone is clicking at the same time," Williams said. "We did that a few times this summer and beat up on some good teams."
Hopefully they can have a few of those "complete games" this postseason.