COVINGTON, Ga. — The Newton boys basketball team is home for the summer, and though the Rams will still go into the fall with a lot of questions, coach Rick Rasmussen may rest easy that answers to some questions were also discovered.
Question: How would a team with zero returning starters, made up of guys who largely either came off the bench last year or played most of their minutes on JV fair in competitive summer tournaments?
The answer: Newton’s summer record was 26-3 overall from play in several camps and summer leagues from June 12-24. In that, the Rams won bookend camp championships — its first at Georgia College after going a perfect 10-0, and it’s last at Mercer after turning in a 5-1 mark.
Question: Who would be the emerging stars and impact players left behind after a star-studded 2016-17 squad either went off to college or, in rising junior point guard Ashton Hagans’ case, went to prep school power Oak Hill Academy?
The answer: At some point it was a little bit of everyone. But one player in particular, junior Colby Rogers, not only showed he had the potential to carry some of the team’s scoring load, but he also displayed a skill set that led to his first collegiate scholarship offer from Mercer.
Question: How would such a young, inexperienced team respond when faced with true in-game adversity?
The answer: Look no further than the Rams’ 58-55 win over a stout Eagle’s Landing squad in the Mercer Camp championship game. After playing to a 28-28 tie, Newton would push an eight point lead, only to have Eagle’s Landing storm back to grab a two-point advantage late. Tied at 55, Eagle’s Landing missed a go-ahead jumper and senior Dre Butler, back from an injury-plagued junior year, grabbed the board, allowing Newton to call timeout which set up Rogers for a game-winning three pointer.
In that game, not only did Rogers finish with 14 points, but fellow junior Tyrease Brown, who saw most of his minutes last year on the Rams’ JV squad, buried six triples for a game-high 18 points.
Butler, a 6-foot-5 post player, and 6-foot-6 junior Armani Harris combined for 22 points and 12 rebounds.
And for Rasmussen, the performances showed him that his young bunch wants to, and can, compete at a high level.
“It was really a great way to end our summer, getting a chance to face Eagle’s Landing again in the final,” Rasmussen said. “The Mercer camp was the best competition we faced all summer, with the likes of Brunswick who was a state runner-up last season, and Tift County who won state.”
Granted, there are many dynamics involved in summer competition — shorter games with running clocks, and sometimes played on smaller courts — that change the game drastically from what regular season play will bring. But competition is still competition, and when you have green squad, Rasmussen says the importance of the reps against other teams is even greater.
“Our summer varsity squad was inexperienced with zero returning starters, but they really improved and stepped up for us,” Rasmussen said. “They are fun group to coach, and have great attitudes. They know that in order for us to be our best, we have to work together and respect each other. They displayed that they value teamwork and care about each other.”
The summer work for the Rams’ program also included hosting its own camp with over 60 players participating, and 13 junior varsity players who traveled to Georgia College and finished with a 3-0 mark.
All told, the summer competition gave Newton basketball enthusiasts a sneak peak at some of the potential playmakers that could emerge in the new year.
Through 29 summer games, Rogers, a 6-foot-4 combo guard, led the team in scoring at 13 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, while Dre Butler poured in 11.5 points and close to six boards per contest. Harris was the team’s leading rebounder by just a bit over Butler, and most of Brown’s nine points per game average came from sharp shooting behind the arc.
As stated, some questions still linger — perhaps the most important of them is finding out who will pilot the team from the point guard spot so masterfully held down for the last two seasons by the departed Hagans.
In the summer, a committee of guys including seniors Eric Broadnax, Tyler Glover and Juwan Johnson, along with junior Tre Clark all battled at the position, and showed promise while bringing differing skills to the backcourt.
But Rasmussen, heading into his 13th year as head coach, knows that those things typically sort themselves out over time.
Meanwhile, he says he’s looking forward to seeing how this new batch of Rams will raise eyebrows come November.
“Despite the inexperience, I think our varsity team will be very solid next season and surprise a lot of people,” he said. “We lost eight players out of 13 from last year, but we return a solid group looking to be the next stars of Newton Rams basketball. This summer indicates that Colby Rogers, Dre Butler and others are up to the task.
“We can’t wait to get back to work in the fall. These guys want to work and get better, and their humble attitudes and willingness to listen are helping the get better faster than naysayers expected.”