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Rams take toughness into season
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To compete in one of the toughest regions in the state, a team must be, well, tough.

That's exactly what Newton hopes to bring to the table in the 2012-13 season as it looks to return to the state playoffs after a year off.

The Rams started off this season by winning the Northeast Georgia Invitational in Madison County with a 56-45 victory over Stone Mountain and a 53-41 victory over Hart County.

The 2-0 start matches the beginning of the 2010-11 season, which also happens to be the last state playoff appearance for the Rams. Last season, they finished in second place in Region 2-AAAAA but were upset by Stephenson in the region tournament, the same team Newton beat twice in the regular season.

After the loss, the Rams lost three starters, including leading scorers Stephen Croone and Shane Henry, now playing in college.

Along with scoring, Henry also left Newton void of size after he blocked four shots a game last season, something they are overcoming with toughness. The Rams pride themselves on taking charges, rather than worrying about blocked shots. Throughout the first regular season game and an exhibition Rashard Cabane had four charges and Rodarius Mitchell two.

"We lost shot blocking ability, but we're very tough and we take charges," Newton coach Rick Rasmussen said. "Charges are kind of like blocks. Our kids are tough inside, we take charges inside and that makes a big difference. We're going to have to compete with toughness, we won't be competing with size."

Cabane finished with 28 charges in 23 summer games for the Rams this year, helping lead them to an impressive 21-2 slate. The Rams only two summer losses came from four-time defending state champion Miller Grove and a big Tucker team.

"We had a really surprisingly successful summer," Rasmussen said. "I thought we would be pretty good but I wasn't sure how good."

Newton is eager to see how good it can be in the regular season, and has limited time to figure out how. After the season-opening tournament, Newton hosts state playoff team Jenkins Nov. 30 before traveling to region and county foe Alcovy Dec. 1.

"We're hungry to get back to the state first and foremost and compete for a region title, and our region is a really, really good basketball region, Rasmussen said. "It's one of the best regions in AAAAAA with a lot of winning basketball with us, Rockdale, Alcovy and Lovjeoy, who have all been really successful last year or the year before."
The Rams are working on getting back to that level by maintaining its toughness, something it has developed under Rasmussen since he took over the program.
Newton develops its toughness with competitive practices day-in and day-out based on effort.

"Our practices are competitive, guys get after it," Rasmussen said. "We tend to give the toughest players more playing time. If you're not as tough, you're not going to play. Guys who are tough, they're the ones who get the playing time."

Those players get to prove themselves by facing off against those who are close to their talent level. Rather than take the starters, and play them against the second team or a practice squad, Rasmussen said he mixes up his starters so they get to face each other in practice.

"Starters can't go against weaker players, so they can't take a day off," Rasmussen said. "We do that sometimes to keep practice competitive."

The practices have paid off with two region championships and an elite eight appearance in the last three years.

"When the rubber hits the road, you have to have toughness," Rasmussen said. "All our guys are coached to be mentally sound and disciplined. We take pride in that first and foremost and we are playing off playing smart and playing together and doing the best with what we've got."

Leading the way for the Rams in the 2012-13 season is Cabane, Mitchell, Kishon Rogers, Taylor Hawkins, Jamir Davis, Jalen Glover, Albert Zachary, D.J. Hill, M.J. Boykin and Jamari Davis. Hill, Rogers, Mitchell, Cabane and Glover are slated to start.

While Mitchell and Cabane will be looked on as scorers after finishing in the top five of that category for Newton last season, eyes will be on guards Hill and Boykin, who starred for the freshman and junior varsity teams last year, respectively.

"They're young guys who are pretty good in the open floor and fun to watch," Rasmussen said.

The young guys will get tested early, not only against Jenkins and Alcovy, but also get right into region play against Lovejoy and travel to Dallas County, Ala., for the Yule Tide Christmas Classic.

"We'll be playing some of the best teams from Alabama and one really talented private school from Tennessee," Rasmussen said. "Christmas time is going to be great for us to stay sharp and play people just as good as those in our region."

After playing cross-town rival Eastside Jan. 5, the Rams get full-fledged into their region schedule.

"Our schedule is extremely difficult," Rasmussen said.