COVINGTON, Ga. — Hanging at the top of Newton High School’s gymnasium are region championship and state playoff banners.
There is an array of Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen banners in the rafters, but only one lonely state title banner from Newton’s boys basketball team — the 1964 state crown won by the Rams.
Nearly 60 years later, Newton’s star players — Stephon Castle, Jakai Newton and Marcus Whitlock — want to be responsible for giving that banner some company.
In fact, that’s been their main mission since day one at Newton
“It’s our last year,” Newton said. “It feels like yesterday we came in as freshmen, but the time went by quickly. It’s our last go round at it.”
The trio has seen the program steadily inch closer and closer to capturing a state championship.
At the end of their freshmen seasons, the Rams finished in the Sweet Sixteen. A year later, Newton progressed to the Elite Eight before being eliminated. And just last season, the Rams were knocked out in the Final Four.
Now, Castle said they’re ready to get over the hump.
“I think we can go all the way,” Castle said.
Castle is a 5-star combo guard committed to UConn basketball while Newton is a 4-star Indiana signee. Meanwhile, Whitlock seems to be the most overlooked of Newton’s current “Big 3.”
Nevertheless, Whitlock is considered a vital part to the Rams’ chances at state supremacy. So much so that, unlike last season, Whitlock is in the starting five.
“I’ve got a heavier load this year,” Whitlock said. “I just come into every game ready to play. This time I feel like I’ve got to come in and fight more because it’s my last year. We want to win.”
Meanwhile, Jakai Newton has dealt with a knee injury in his senior season. As a result, he’s missed out on most of this year.
But Newton had his triumphant return to the court on Friday, Feb. 3, at Archer. He had a few high intensity dunks that got the crowd on its feet.
Now back from being sidelined, Newton is eager to help the Rams the rest of the way.
“The nine months I’ve been out have given my body the rest that I needed,” Newton said. “But how much I want to win doesn’t change. The goal was to win before I got hurt and it still is.”
Castle, though, is the player who has people debating whether or not he’s the best to ever do it at Newton.
In his four years, Castle has earned numerous individual accolades including but not limited to: Team USA U18 Gold Medal, 2023 McDonald’s All-American and Region 4-AAAAAAA Player of the Year as a junior.
None of that will matter to Castle if he graduates without a state title.
“Our main focus is to win the state,” Castle said.
Newton has gone up against some heavyweights across the nation during its 2022-23 season. The Rams have faced teams like Duncanville (Texas), IMG Academy and, most recently, Wheeler as part of an ESPNU broadcast.
That’s aside from the Region 4-AAAAAAA competition with teams like Grayson, Archer and Parkview.
Every player believes their region and non-region slate has prepared them for the upcoming region and state tournaments.
“Our schedule has put us in position to go on that late run in the playoffs,” Castle said. “All those good teams we’ve been playing, we’re going to show that against these lower level teams in Georgia.”
Not only has the Rams’ tough schedule groomed them for a deep postseason run, but they feel like the shortcomings of the past few years have, too.
All three players stressed an important lesson the entire squad learned the past three years.
“Make sure every practice and game, you give 100%,” Newton said. “Because if you don’t, toward the end of the season it’s going to show.”
Giving 100% day in and day out goes right along with a specific word — a variation of it — that has been floating around the program all season: Hungry.
Head coach Charlemagne Gibbons used it in the preseason, and each of the “Big 3” stressed how hungry they are for the state title.
But, at this point, it’s only a word. With the state playoffs upcoming, the Rams hope to turn that word into an action.
If Newton accomplishes that goal and hangs another state championship banner in the rafters of Newton High’s gymnasium, it’ll be a dream come true for each player.
“Being in the history books as the first team to win a state championship here [in 59 years] would be a big accomplishment for us,” Castle said. “It’ll be like all of our hard work has paid off.”