COVINGTON, Ga. — Names like Stephon Castle and Jakai Newton have become synonymous with Newton Rams basketball the past few years. However, four new role players surrounding the aforementioned five-and-four star prospects have emerged: Tay Jeffries, Timothy Prather, Jabez Jenkins and Ashton Pennamon.
According to head coach Charlemagne Gibbons, their play might be the most important piece to what Newton hopes is a state championship season. The players have the same belief for a state title run.
“It’s very important to get over the hump and win state,” Pennamon said. “That way we can show that we’re the top team in Georgia.”
Three of the four players were on last year’s squad that suffered defeat to eventual state champion Norcross in the Class AAAAAAA Final Four.
That postgame feeling has stuck even this season.
“I’m not going to lie…[last year’s Final Four loss] hurt,” Jeffries said. “In the summertime, we had to go even harder than last year.”
And, while all four players are aware of the star power they play alongside, each of them remain focused on doing their part.
Pennamon said his vocal nature is one of his strongest assets.
“For me, I think my voice helps a lot,” Pennamon said. “I have great speed, too, and I press on defense to disrupt my opponent.”
Meanwhile, Jenkins believes he brings a high level of energy on and off the court.
“Being a leader on the court is huge and just being there for my brothers,” Jenkins said.
Despite their abilities on the court, none of it would matter if the entire group hadn’t learned the art of playing together as a team. That camaraderie on the court begins, they say, with how they get along with each other off the court. It’s also built confidence in themselves and each other.
“I learned how important off the court stuff is,” Pennamon said. “And, if you take care of things off the court, then everything will be sharper on the court.”
“We’re always playing hard,” Prather added. “And we know anyone can make shots.”
The foursome understands the importance of honing and refining their skills during practice time. But when it’s time to tip off in front of a large crowd, that’s when things jump to another level.
“It’s always on,” Pennamon said. “But once the game comes, we take it up another notch.”
Each players’ role has helped Newton (14-7, 6-1) achieve the top spot in Region 4-AAAAAAA. The Rams’ closest losses have come against some of the best high school squads in the country, such as Duncanville (Texas), IMG Academy and McEachern.
Newton also has a few key wins this year, starting with its season-opening 30-point victory against Mays as well as defeating three more out-of-state opponents to claim the City of Palms tournament win in Fort Myers, Florida.
More opportunities to nab some marquee wins present themselves as Newton will face Archer (16-5) Friday, an ESPN-televised bout Monday with No. 3 Wheeler and a rematch with region rival Grayson on Feb. 10 to close out the regular season.
Despite the gauntlet-style schedule, the Rams are achieving even with new pieces on this year’s roster. But that hasn’t slowed them down one bit. Actually, the players feel like the team is better than last year’s.
“We got a bigger, better team,” Jenkins said. “We’re going to continue to work harder than we did last year. And then we’ll end up winning that [state title] game.”
When asked what their favorite memory from this season is, all four players, in unison, said it was that tournament win.
“We won the championship with my brothers,” Jenkins said. “We went down there and accomplished what we set out to do.”
Something else besides winning the tournament came from that trip to Florida. Pennamon believes each player’s bond was enhanced, as a result.
“Every time we’re together is always fun,” Pennamon said. “Whenever we’re with our teammates on the road or in the locker room, we’re making moments we’ll remember forever.”
Now they’re hoping more memories can be made as the postseason looms.
After the regular season conclusion, the Rams will compete in the Region 4-AAAAAAA tournament hosted by Grayson. In each of the last two years, Newton has come up short in the region title game against Grayson.
But the ultimate goal the Rams have surpasses a region supremacy — it’s claiming the ultimate state title.
And, while Pennamon, Prather, Jenkins and Jeffries aren’t considered the faces of Newton basketball, winning a state crown would still mean just as much to them as it would to the Rams’ headliners – perhaps even more, in some ways.
“It’ll be legendary,” Prather said. “I’m from Covington, so winning a state championship will be pretty special.”