The Eastside Eagles boys' basketball team, which finished with a 15-10 overall record and 9-5 region record, is looking to avenge their first-round loss to Druid Hills Red Devils in the region tournament, which led to them falling just short of making the state playoffs.
Last season was an emotional time for this Eastside Eagles squad as they played much of last season with heavy hearts as head coach Brent Wren continued his fight with stomach cancer.
Sadly, Wren lost his battle with cancer on Friday, May 10th, 2019, and the public's reaction throughout his battle made it known that Wren was much more than a basketball coach; he was a pivotal figure in many people's lives beyond the court and beyond the walls of Eastside high school.
Eagles new head coach, Michael Gerald, stepped up in as the interim head coach last season and knew during that time that his team was playing with Wren on their minds.
Gerald said he could feel that his players "wanted to do well for coach Wren," but that it had to be an "emotionally draining" time for the team.
With the thoughts of Wren on players and the coaching staff's mind throughout the season, it is a testament to this team to continue to fight on the court while their thoughts may have been elsewhere.
The Eagles season ended in a very disappointing fashion for the group, and Gerald wants to make sure that his team is not in that position again.
"When you lose to a team the way we did, I think we had some opportunities," said Gerald. "You learn from those hiccups and bumps in the road."
This Eagles squad has five seniors on the team in Jake Casola, Joseph Prioleau, Kevon Lewis, Jacob Motley and Kenney Garrick. Gerald believes that all five seniors will play pivotal roles, but believes one senior could surprise people this season and that this player's work in the offseason will pay off for him this year.
"We have Jake Casola. He's going to be a pleasant surprise this year. He's worked so hard in the offseason and has a great attitude, so we're going to rely on his leadership," said Gerald. "He plays with some toughness and great footwork around the basket, and he's expanding his game and range on the court. I feel like he's just right on the cusp on making people go, 'Man, I didn't know this guy.'"
Casola brings some senior leadership in a frontcourt that has some youthful players that have high potential. One such player is the Eagles 6-foot-8 sophomore Chauncey Wiggins, who is already garnering national attention as the nation's 58th best prospect in the 2022 class per 247sports.
Gerald believes Wiggins will have a significant impact on the Eagles this season, but still has areas that he can improve his game.
"He just brings versatility. Offensively, he can play inside and outside, he's long," said Gerald. "We're going to need him to get a little bit more physical, but he has everything, has all the tools, and he's put in a lot of work."
Wiggins and Casola seem to be big-time factors in the Eagles gameplan, but Gerald also listed junior Miokaye Grant as a guy that could give the Eagles some quality minutes.
With a strong frontcourt, the Eagles will rely heavily on junior Myles Rice, who seems to be the go-to guy on this team. Rice burst onto the scene last season and proved himself to be one of the county's best. Gerald had high praise for Rice and knows how crucial Rice will be to the overall team's success.
"I just need Myles to continue to grow as a player and with leadership. He's the guy who has the most experience and is coming back as an all-region player, and we're going to try to use that experience and ride him in games where decisions have to be made," said Gerald. "He's just a competitor, and he does a little bit of everything, he rebounds the ball for us, he's our primary ball-handler and decision-maker, so we rely on him to do just about anything."
Rice understands that he must step up as a leader and has been hard at work to improve in that area. He also has set some big-time team and individual goals for his junior season.
"I've been working on being a more vocal leader for the team and making sure that everyone knows their roles and how to play together," said Rice. "For the team, I obviously want us to win state, but individually I want to get closer to that thousand-point club and win region player of the year."
If Rice can do that, then this Eagles team should be flying high and make a definite run in the state playoffs. However, coach Gerald knows this team still has plenty of room to improve and listed the area that he knows his team could use the most improvement.
"I think our transition game has to be better," said Gerald. "Defending and not giving up easy baskets and then, obviously, we want to be able to get the ball out and get great shots in transition."
This Eagles squad seems to be solid top to bottom and should make noise in not only region play but also in the state tournament.
They will start on their path to state on Saturday, November 9th, when they face Redan high school in the Southwest Dekalb Showcase.