Rivalry game after rivalry game, fans take to social media, the local barbershops and pretty much any place where you can strike up a normal conversation to discuss which school/team is the best. Between the two counties there are six high schools, all vying for bragging rights. We decided to end the talk and put it on paper (actually computer, because technology, but you get it). Every team has pretty much ended its regular season and region tournaments are set to begin next week. The following list has been compiled based on regular season wins, regions wins, wins against teams in Newton/Rockdale and the eye test (i.e. how good teams look when you watch them play).
1. RCHS - This pick was probably one of the easier picks of the list. The Bulldogs beat Newton twice, Heritage twice, Salem in the only game they played and they beat Alcovy twice. Coupled with that is the fact that Rockdale has been dominant in Region 2-AAAAAA with its only two region losses coming against Tucker. Rockdale finished its season 19-6 (8-2 Region 2-AAAAAA) and will likely play Newton next Friday if the Rams beat Alcovy on Tuesday. The Bulldogs, under head coach Tyrone King, are led by Connor Ferrell, Jalen Jordan and Dwayne Brown, three of our picks for first team all-area.
2. Heritage/Newton - The distinction between picking which team was No. 2 and which team was No. 3 was a difficult decision. Nevertheless it came down to which team had more quality wins, which put Newton and Heritage in a tie for second place. Newton finished its season with a 19-6 (5-5 Region 2-AAAAAA) record overall with big wins over Cedar Shoals, Lovejoy and Clarke Central. Heritage, on the other hand, finished with less regular season wins at 16-8 (they have one game left against Salem, which is likely a win) but the Patriots boasted an 8-3 region record including wins over Tri-Cities, Cedar Shoals and Tucker. Both teams have had really good seasons and they even split the season series with each other, making it harder to pick one for a solid No. 2. They're also pretty stocked with talented players like Jordan Thomas, Makyle Wilkerson and Isaiah Banks for Heritage. Then you've got D.J. Hill, Jaquan Sims and Darvin Jones for Newton. It'll be interesting to see where these two teams end up in the playoffs, as they're both capable of making deep runs.
4. Eastside - Eastside (14-10, 9-7 Region 4-AAAA) has enjoyed great success as of late. The Eagles have won seven of their last eight games including a 67-56 win over Walnut Grove, one of the best teams in the region. Eastside head coach Gregory Freeman, with future star sophomore guard Isaiah Miller has his team spreading the wealth on offense and playing stifling defense. The Eagles have had a streaky season, but they're ranked here because of their region success and the recent roll the team has been on.
5. Salem - Both Eastside and Salem have been inconsistent this season, but Salem has a losing record overall and in region play (10-13, 5-7 Region 8-AAAAA). It's crazy because Salem probably has more talent than a lot of these teams, especially with Austin Samuel (18 points per game, seven rebounds per game), but they just haven't been able to put it together. Salem lost every game to Heritage, Rockdale and Newton, but managed to beat Alcovy twice with ease.
6. Alcovy - They haven't won a game yet. In all fairness, Tigers' head coach Duane Kelley tries his hardest to bring the best out of his players, but this just isn't their year.
1. Salem - Last year this team went to the elite eight in the state playoffs and at the beginning of the season they didn't look like a team that could replicate its success, but now they do. Salem stands strong with a 16-8 (8-4 Region 8-AAAAA) record and they've beaten Alcovy and Newton twice, Rockdale in the only matchup, but, peculiarly, they lost to a Heritage team that had just two wins at the time. Still, led by head coach Rochone Dilligard, Salem has the most dangerous one-two punch in the county and on this list with Shay Tarver at guard and Ayanna Mitchell at forward. Salem makes its money on defense, getting rebounds and easy baskets. They'll be hard to stop in the region tournament and in the state playoffs.
2. Newton - Twice, Newton came close to beating the No. 1 team on this list, but they came up short each time. However, the Lady Rams are a young and dangerous team. They have a 17-8 record overall and they're 7-3 Region 2-AAAAAA, which is good for second place in the region. Newton split its season series against defending state champion Tucker this season, and they're the biggest threat to beat them in the region tournament. The Lady Rams have been bitten by the injury bug and haven't been completely healthy the entire season, but they look to get back one of their starters in guard Jurnee Smith, who will make a huge difference down the stretch. Smith will play next to the second deadliest one-two punch on this list in sophomore Imani Broadnax and freshman Alexcia Chatman. Other than inexperience, there is nothing standing in the way of Newton winning the region again and possibly making noise in the playoffs.
3. Alcovy - Although being ranked No. 3 may seem like this team isn't as good as the top two, and that's true to a fault, but the Lady Tigers are really close to being better than both. After losing to Salem by 28 points in the first game of the season, Alcovy came back and played them hard the second game losing by just four. The Lady Tigers also split the season series with Newton, winning at home. Tierra Hodges leads the team in scoring and rebounding, as she averages 18 points, 10 rebounds and two steals per game. The Lady Tigers are third in the region and have a legitimate chance to beat both Newton and Tucker if things go their way.
4. Eastside - The Lady Eagles are the epitome of a team that doesn't have much success outside the region, but wins games when it matters, which are region games. Eastside is 1-8 against non-region opponents, but the team is 9-7 in Region 4-AAAA. They've gotten owned by Newton and Alcovy, but when it comes to region play the team wins games. Led by Janelle Cook, Teirra Brown and Rayniesha Clay, the Lady Eagles are currently second in the sub-region and they could be one of those teams that gets hot and makes a run with their defense as their greatest strength.
5. Heritage - At first glance, you think why isn't Heritage the No. 6 team instead of Rockdale? The Lady Patriots are 4-17 overall and 2-10 in Region 8-AAAAA, while the Lady Bulldogs are 7-16 and 2-8 in Region 2-AAAAAA. But then you look at their schedule and see that the Lady Patriots beat Rockdale, twice. Although they got off to a rough start, Heritage has been much more competitive as of late. Senior Damali Thomas has done well leading young up and coming players like sophomore Asia Caldwell and freshman Camille Saunders. The Lady Pats probably aren't deep enough to make noise in the playoffs, but they have a bright future if the team can develop its youth.
6. Rockdale - The Lady Bulldogs (7-16, 2-8 in Region 2-AAAAAA) haven't played to their potential this season, especially with the supremely talented Sydney Fields and go-getter Jonai Jackson. Still, with Fields and Jackson both being juniors, they have another year to capitalize on their talent and make a run during the season.