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STOVALL: Don't judge a school by its cow pasture: Newton basketball belongs with the rest

Newton High School doesn’t look like much of a Georgia basketball powerhouse when you drive up on the scene. 

Coming down Crowell Road in Covington toward 1 Ram Way, you’ll most likely see the cows grazing in a miniature pasture before you see the digital sign that lets you know you’re in Newton Ram country. 

At first glance, you may not believe a pair of long-tenured coaches with multiple region championships and state tournament berths between them reside here. 

But they do. 

Tiffani Johnson, a former Lady Ram herself, has guided the Newton girls program for 13 seasons. Same with boys coach, Rick Rasmussen who’s been at Newton for 20 years total if you count the seven seasons he spent as an assistant coach with Ron Bradley, Georgia high school basketball’s all-time winningest coach, during the sunset of his career. 

When you look at their resumes, both Johnson's and Rasmussen's stand out. 

Johnson’s on a current streak of six straight Georgia High School Association state tournament appearances and four straight 20-win campaigns, even as she’s guided her team to a Region 8-AAAAAAA crown and an appearance in the Class AAAAAAA state championship this season. 

Tiffani Johnson
Newton girls coach Tiffani Johnson has won several coach of the year awards after guiding the Lady Rams to a Class AAAAAAA state championship berth. - photo by Anthony Banks

Meanwhile, Rasmussen has an eye-popping record of his own. Since the 2009-10 season, Rasmussen has led Newton to eight straight years with either a region crown or a region runner-up finish. 

Only two times since the 2008-09 season have the Rams missed the postseason. Only once since the 2009-10 season has Newton won less than 20 games. That was the 2012-13 squad that finished as region runners-up with a 19-7 mark.

The Rams have found the Elite Eight or Final Four in the last four seasons, including the 2017-18 campaign. They also saw a Final Four appearance in 2009-10 and an Elite Eight showing in 2010-11. 

Both Johnson and Rasmussen will likely hit milestones for career wins next season, with Johnson on the cusp of 200 wins and Rasmussen likely to eclipse 300. And in an era of sports — even on the high school level —where continuity and long coaching tenures seem about as out of style as the 8-track or cassette tape, that’s pretty darn special. 

Newton head coach Rick Rasmussen led his Rams squad to its second Final Four appearance in the last three years, despite having just one returning starter from last year's nationally ranked team. - photo by Anthony Banks

Yet, whenever there's a conversation about Georgia's top hoops programs of the last 10 years or so, Newton doesn’t seem to get many mentions. 

Perhaps a lack of state championships is why. For all the success Newton basketball has had over the last decade, the state championship and the uber-popular, five-star recruiting prospect has always seemed to elude its grasp. 

Newton basketball aficionados know about the 1964 boys state championship team that  Bradley had. But that's all as far as state champs go. 

Many penciled in last year’s nationally ranked Newton bunch --  arguably the most talented team in school history -- into the state championship game. But a revenge-minded Tift County team showed up the Elite Eight with an eraser. 

This year, Newton’s boys squad finally got the five-star prospect in Ashton Hagans, arguably the top point guard in the nation, not-arguably the best in Georgia. Meanwhile, the girls have about as solid a group of seniors as you’ll find in the state. And both came into last weekend with about as clear a path to a state championship game as they could’ve hoped for.

Georgia high school hoops prognosticators still maintain, though, that the Newton boys’ best chance at a title was with last year’s team. 

With the Isaiah Miller and J.D. Notae now college freshmen, along with sharpshooter Darvin Jones, and Hagans, at one point seemingly set to transfer to prestigious Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, there were whispers that Newton might be hard-pressed to even get back to the state tournament, let alone a championship of any kind. 

But there was youth, the emergence of junior Colby Rogers and the return of 6-foot-5 forward Dre Butler. Then Rogers transferred to a school in New Jersey, and all of a sudden, the young Rams got even younger.

Dre Butler
The return of senior Dre Butler was priceless to Newton's success this season. - photo by Anthony Banks

True enough, it would be a brand new starting five. But if the summer workouts prior to this season were any indication, Rasmussen would have a very green, but eager squad. And you could tell that excited him. 

Looking back, the original expectation of a Hagans-less ball club might have been the best thing that could’ve happened for guys like Armani Harris, Dre Butler, Tyler Glover, Juwan Johnson and Tyrease Brown. Brown says as much. 

“People didn’t believe in us coming into this year, so we felt like we had to show them,” Brown said. “During the summer, at the time, we all knew that Ashton was probably going to go to Oak Hill. So we all knew we had to step our game up. We went to work extra hard with shooting, ball-handling and defense. We were ready to prove to everybody just how good we really are. But then when Ashton came back, it just helped us even more.” 

Tyrease Brown
A first-year varsity starter, Tyrease Brown was one of the state's top three-point shooters. - photo by Anthony Banks

Newton opened the season with an impressive scrimmage win over Class A Private Final Four squad, Eagle’s Landing Christian. That game proved to be Brown’s coming out party as a varsity player, as he poured in 45 points in his first action in the starting lineup. 

After that, the Rams kept winning. Against Pebblebrook. Against Columbia. Against top-ranked teams from other states. The games against Georgia squads that they lost, a pair of one-point defeats to Grayson and Mountain View, they redeemed when it mattered most. 

Postseason time. 

They got Grayson back in the region championship game. They topped Mountain View in the Sweet 16 round of state. They chopped down EJ Montgomery and the Wheeler trees. In all, Newton has defeated six teams from five different classifications that came into this weekend as Final Four teams. 

Meanwhile, the Lady Rams were making their own impressive run, redeeming themselves against South Gwinnett in the region title game and answering the bell time and time again with a solid corps of six seniors, on their way to an unprecedented state tournament run. 

By the time some of you get around to reading this column, all will know if the boys made it past Norcross to play either Meadwocreek for a state championship, or if the Lady Rams had enough in the tank to run past Westlake for the girls program's first state title. But one thing should already be common knowledge. 

Newton Rams basketball has proven that it belongs in the conversation of powerhouse programs in Georgia High School hoops.

It may not always have the big-named prospects that college scouts drool over every year. 

It may not have the largest, sexiest looking campus or boast the biggest Class AAAAAAA student population. 

Most years neither roster is adorned with the tallest ballers, and the area doesn't benefit from consistently deep middle school feeder programs, and it may not be the hot spot for hot-shot prospects looking for a place to transfer. 

But here’s what Newton Rams basketball has managed to establish in this era of musical chairs athletics: Consistency, continuity and character. 

Johnson and Rasmussen make sure their teams are well-coached, well-mannered and academically well-off. And regardless of who comes and goes, and despite the embarrassment of riches that surround them in Georgia’s largest classification, Newton basketball keeps finding ways to remain relevant and in the hunt. 

One of these days, persistence may pay off when it comes time to hoist state championship hardware -- maybe as soon as Saturday. But whether it happens this year or not, the school on the fringe of the East Atlanta metro area has served the rest of the state notice of one thing this year. 

Newton Rams basketball isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor of The Covington News. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @GabrielStovall1.