These days, as my father’s health slowly declines thanks (no thanks) to Alzheimer’s disease, I find myself drifting frequently to reminiscing modes — thinking about some of Dad’s most famous quips and nuggets of wisdom.
As I listened to Newton Rams boys basketball coach Rick Rasmussen talk about his highly decorated, extremely successful 2019 senior class after Thursday night’s season ending loss to defending Class AAAAAAA champ Meadowcreek, another one my dad’s gems popped into my mind.
“Son,” he’d say, “it’s not always about what you have, but how you use it.”
Most times when he would say this to me it would be during one of his lectures encouraging me to properly and responsibly spend my money.
My father didn’t finish high school. He grew up in Mississippi, and dropped out to help his parents and his multiple siblings tend their farm on the outskirts of Tupelo. But although he wasn’t rich, he never went without, because he put his own preaching into practice.
So it was natural, I guess, to think of this as coach Rasmussen began to salute his 2019 senior class — a group that had a hand in 104 wins, four straight Sweet 16 appearances, three region championships, a couple of Final Four appearances and a partridge in a pear tree.
“Some people want to talk about who we don’t have, but I’m really proud of the Newton High School class of 2019,” Rasmussen said. “We have our integrity. Our kids are a bunch of kids from Covington who work extremely hard. Our seniors, all seven of them, have been with us for four years. One of our best ever, and we have no regrets, and I’m super proud of the kids and how they fought to the very end. They never gave up.”
And in the process, this group proved a ton of doubters wrong.
When I came to Covington almost three years ago, I showed up right before the start of the 2016-17 season. I talked with Coach Ras in his office, and one thing I remember is how quickly he warmed up to me to talk hoops at length. I’m sure this was probably more about his overall love and passion for the game than it was the new reporter standing in his office, but either way I was glad.
That day, Rasmussen did a run-down of Class AAAAAAA squads, both in and outside of Newton’s region, that would’ve made you think he was coaching against one of those teams that day, even though the season hadn’t started yet. He made mention of all of the teams who had the big, behemoth 6-foot-8-plus players — some of them home grown in their respective school districts and others, well, not.
Rasmussen said he never really had that kind of player in his long-standing tenure at Newton. And perhaps that was the one thing stopping him short of grabbing that ever-elusive state championship, despite coming up just short several times.
It’s no secret that recruiting happens in high school basketball. And it’s also no secret that if you ask a high school coach if their program has ever recruited, they’ll almost always tell you no. But Rasmussen is one of the few guys I’ve met whom I believe when he says it.
A perusal of some of Newton basketball’s rosters seem to prove it. There are seasons when he has a good group of Division I talents on his squad, and then there are seasons when he seemingly gets it done without a whole ton of star power.
Ironically, that 2016-17 squad was probably his best, especially from a talent standpoint. Isaiah Miller, J.D. Notae, Ashton Hagans, Josh Tukes in the middle, sharpshooter Darvin Jones, and future stars like Tre Clark, Armani Harris and Tyrease Brown waiting in the wings and watching the big boys get it done.
That team was nationally ranked and flirted with an undefeated season for a while. It ran into P.J. Horne, now at Virginia Tech, and a tough-as-nails Tift County squad that won it all that year. But I firmly believe if Newton would’ve gotten past them, they’d have won it all.
The next year it was almost all Ashton Hagans. He’s that all-world talent that you only get blessed with once a generation if you’re lucky. Hagans put the team on his back all the way to the Final Four. So it was a natural reflex for many to doubt this Rams squad’s ability to keep Newton in the postseason conversation.
Hopefully after Clark, Harris and Brown — virtual no names to the state hoops scene just two years ago — came on and dominated most of the teams on their schedule, people will begin to say what I’ve been saying since shortly after meeting Rasmussen and knowing all he puts into preparing his teams for success.
Don’t bet against a Rick Rasmussen coached team.
I’ve said it before in this space, but it bears repeating, especially when you consider the competition Newton faces in Class AAAAAAA ball.
“Seven-A ball in Georgia is a totally different animal,” Rasmussen said. “Someone said the other day on MaxPreps that it was the open division in California and 7A in Georgia that are the toughest in the nation to win a state championship.”
Sounds plausible when you think of the kind of Division I, Power Five and even professional talent that’s come through Georgia’s highest classification over the last 10 years.
Not only has Rasmussen seen it. He’s coached against it. And by way of his position on the Atlanta TipOff Club’s selection committee — the committee that chooses some of the more prestigious postseason accolades for prep ballers in Georgia — he’s observed and evaluated it.
On Thursday night, Newton ran up against some of that elite competition in a defending state champ in Meadowcreek. There were rumors prior to the game that Meadowcreek might benefit from the services of a 6-foot-8 player named Darius Gaddy transferring in from Wheeler, but that came to naught. Of course some of the more upper echelon, elite teams count on a couple of those kinds of acquisitions a year.
Newton doesn’t seem to have that luxury, if you want to call it that, as often as others.
“It will be fun as a fan to sit back and watch and see who’s left standing,” Rasmussen said. “Class 7A is what it is. We have no regrets. We don’t have two move-ins like this team did, and we have everybody that we have, and we love our kids and are very proud of them.”
What Newton has in Rasmussen is a detail-oriented coach who believes in old-school principles of fundamentally sound basketball and a disciplined program that prepares its athletes for college careers on the court and in the classroom.
And what Rasmussen has at Newton is a community that may not have the biggest talent pool, and may not attract a ton of transfers and move-ins, but one that loves its basketball and provides a rabid and sometimes raucous fan base that supports the team and the program wholeheartedly, win lose or draw.
No, the coach isn’t perfect. He’ll probably be the first to say so. The program isn’t perfect either, nor is the community. But it’s what we have. And more than arguably any other hoops coach in the state, Rasmussen has seemingly learned the art of making the most of it.
Maybe a state championship will come one of these years. Maybe not. But one thing I do know is if it ever comes, there shouldn’t be much question about whether or not it comes the right way. At least not as long as Rasmussen is around, continuing to make the most out of what he has.
Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor of The Covington News. He can be reached for tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @GabrielStovall1.