*Note: Two corrections are made in this article that didn't make the print version. First, this article correctly reflects Newton's semifinal site as West Georgia University in Carrollton. Secondly, this article correctly reflects the potential Final Four opponent for Newton as either Wheeler or McEachern.
Where is Ric Flair when you need him?
If he was courtside this past Thursday at the Newton High School gymnasium, or better yet, if he were the one giving the pre-game pep talk to the Newton Rams boys basketball team, the legendary pro wrestler (If you were born after 1990, you may have to YouTube or Google him) may have reached back for one of his most oft-quoted sayings to summarize the task at hand last Thursday.
“To be the man, you’ve gotta beat the man.”
As an 80s kid who was a huge pro wrestling fan, I remember vividly watching the Ric Flair interview on TV when he spouted this nine-word piece of linguistic gold. He was going for his fifth championship, having to defeat Ricky Steamboat in Nashville to do it. But Flair had already carved out his reputation as a wrestling icon, whereas Steamboat, despite his belt, was trying to be what Flair already was, as it pertained to wrestling.
He was trying to be “the man.”
That quote rushed to my head Thursday as I looked around at the pre-game atmosphere when the defending state champion Westlake Lions came to town in the second round of the GHSA Class AAAAAAA state tournament.
It came to mind as I saw the Lions strutting out confidently onto the court, wearing their 2015-16 season Class AAAAAA Championship t-shirts during warm-ups.
It came to mind as I looked over at the sharply dressed Westlake head coach Darron Rogers, who was wearing a perfectly tailored dark colored suit and tie. He stood watching his team get the kinks out before tip-off, arms crossed with the bling of what looked like his state championship ring on his finger, effortlessly drawing attention to itself.
All of this caused me to think back to last year. Ironically, I saw a portion of Newton’s 64-59 semifinal loss to Westlake at West Georgia University’s gym because I was in Carrollton covering other teams who were also vying for a state title. Little did I know that day, where I’d be this past Thursday – watching a much anticipated rematch between the Rams and the Lions.
Watching a high school basketball classic unfold right before my eyes.
To be the man, you’ve gotta beat the man. That refrain kept pulsating my conscience as I saw Westlake’s 6-foot-8 phenom Chuma Okeke preparing for the game. It caused me to remember one of the first interviews I did with Newton coach Rick Rasmussen since coming to The Covington News.
We were in his office, and he was briefing me on the success of the Newton program, both before and since he’d been pacing the sidelines. I remember him saying the only kind of player he’d never really had is that big 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9 post player who could jump out of the gym.
On Thursday, I found myself wondering if Okeke was who he was thinking of when he was saying that.
And for all of the success Newton had in the season prior to this game – the national rankings, the national attention, Isaiah Miller upstaging Spartanburg Day’s Zion Williamson on the highlight reel.
Despite the region championship, and beating everyone they played on its schedule at least once, the fact was, Westlake entered Thursday night’s game as, “the man.” Not only were the Lions defending champs, but they also represented Newton heartbreak. As if the physical challenge of beating Westlake wasn’t enough, Newton would also have to get past the mental hurdles involved with trying to dethrone the team that dethroned you last year.
I love what Rams senior J.D. Notae said after the game.
“We were supposed to beat them last year,” Notae said. The 6-foot-3 Jacksonville signee was already back in the locker room while most of his teammates and coaches were still out on the gym floor slapping hands, hugging and enjoying the moments that followed the three overtime thriller. It looked as if he’d been in a war. And he basically admitted as much.
“It was a real dog fight,” he said.
One of the images that has stayed with me since Thursday was a picture of Notae and sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans. They were standing in a side-by-side embrace. Hagans had a mile-wide smile on his face. Notae, on the other hand, looked spent. Holding a mouthpiece in his mouth, he looked like he just stepped out of the ring with the heavyweight champ.
And in a sense, that’s exactly what Newton did. They jumped out fast, put the champs on the ropes early. When the lead swelled to 19 points before halftime, it seemed as if the haymakers were hitting their desired targets and the champs would soon fall.
But Rasmussen knew better.
“I told them at halftime that those guys are champions,” he said. “I knew they weren’t going away.”
There’s no equivalent of “overtime” in boxing or wrestling. In boxing, once you’ve reached the final round, that’s it. But in wrestling, you just keep going until someone is pinned or someone submits. And you knew Westlake wasn’t going to submit.
Interestingly enough, it was a sixth (and sometimes seventh)-man sophomore, Colby Rogers, who leveled the final knockout blows. His draining four free throws to seal the win in the final 30 seconds of the third overtime was the equivalent of pinning the opponent and getting that three-count. And then the celebration began.
In some ways it felt like a championship celebration, but these Rams know better – especially the ones who knew first-hand what that last Westlake bout felt like. Especially the grizzled veteran, Notae, who is typically a young man of few words anyway.
I had to ask around to locate him for an interview. When I saw him in the locker room, he seemed more relieved than excited. His team had just beaten “the man,” but he also knew Newton had more work to do before it could take on that title for itself.
“Celebrate today. Get ready to work tomorrow,” Notae said with a straight face.
Now it’s on to Tift County, who will make the trek to Covington Wednesday. Get past the Blue Devils, and perhaps a possible Final Four matchup with either powerhouses Wheeler or McEachern – the latter of which is ranked No. 4 in the nation in the latest MaxPreps National top 25 poll, but also a team Newton beat handily in the preseason – awaits, depending on what happens in that monster Elite Eight matchup.
But in this context, being the man means not overlooking the next opponent. It means bringing your emotions back down to earth and not staring too far down the road. It means understanding that you’ve gotta win three more games before anyone will call you the man.
Westlake is no longer the man, and as of now, Newton isn’t either. But it’s a much more plausible possibility, now that they’ve dethroned the champs.
Can these Rams continue to push through the gauntlet for the ultimate prize? It remains to be seen. They don’t have a state championship trophy yet. But based on what we saw Thursday, we now know one thing for sure – Newton’s got a championship heart.
Gabriel Stovall is the Sports Editor at The Covington News. He can be reached for tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1 as well as our sports Twitter page @CovNewsSports.