Whitefield Academy is back. And so is its coach.
Last season, after winning a state title in 2012, the Wolfpack finished 18-10 and lost in the first round of the state playoffs, a very good season for most programs. But the program Whitefield Academy head coach Tyrone Johnson has constructed has championship expectations.
Johnson took a year to get some things settled at home last season. His team took a year to grow up a little.
This season, Whitefield is 12-5 and ranked No. 3 in Class A. Tuesday night they travelled to Alpharetta to take on Region 6 rival No. 4 St. Francis, last year’s state runners-up, and the team that beat them in the championship game of the region tournament. For the second time this season, the Wolfpack downed St. Francis, this time by the score of 71-63. Whitefield had defeated the Knights 65-51 back on December 10.
“I definitely needed to take a break to spend more time with my family. I had been at it for 19 years and it was time [to take a break],” Johnson said of his sabbatical. He led the Wolfpack program to all three of its state titles – 2003, 2009 and 2012. “We had a very young team last year. We only had one senior on that team, and we didn’t have quite the talent we had [in 2012].”
But Johnson praised the job done by his longtime assistant, Eddie James, who took over temporarily in his absence.
“He did a tremendous job keeping our fundamentals and our core values in place, and it gave him an opportunity to show how capable he is,” Johnson said of James, who piloted the team to an 18-10 record, a stellar mark for most programs. “He was able to bring more drive and more focus, and so it ended up being a blessing on both ends. He was able to show how good a basketball coach he is, and I was able to come back refreshed and pick up where we left off.”
Johnson said James did more than just coach basketball. He was also able to continue his duties as the team’s community service coordinator, which is a pillar of the Whitefield program. The players volunteer several hours at Heritage Village, a non-profit organization started years ago by Johnson with the goal of helping underprivileged children and families. Two of the team’s major efforts at Heritage Village are coordinating and executing a back-to-school drive in August, where they collect school supplies and distribute them to needy students, and a Christmas gift drive in December.
“It’s very important for our kids to learn the importance of giving back and getting involved in the community,” Johnson said. “And it also builds character and team chemistry. Our community service piece helps us on and off the court.”
Johnson said the Wolfpack need every aspect of their program firing on all cylinders in order to get back to a championship level this season. He set up a rigorous schedule that included four games in holiday tournaments last month in Florida and South Carolina against teams ranked in the top five in their states. Whitefield lost all four but the experience gained will pay off in February and March, Johnson said.
“Philosophically, I like to schedule tough non-conference games to help make us better. You want to win, of course, and be as competitive as you can,” Johnson said. “But the goal is to grow, learn and get better.”
Johnson said the team has done that, largely under the leadership of three seniors who were sophomores on the championship team – guard Eric Lockett, who has signed with George Mason, guard Jesse Byrd (North Georgia College) and guard Berto Dryden.
“Region games are a different story,” he said. “You want to win every one of them because they carry so much significance for the post season. We have some very good teams in our region. North Cobb Christian and St. Francis are two of the most talented teams in the state in any classification. The true test of how good you are is whether or not you can win some of those tough region games on the road.”
Tuesday night, Whitefield did just that.