The Rams had a successful 2008 campaign, finishing the season 18-9 overall. But a first round defeat in the Region 2-AAAA tournament has fourth-year head coach Rick Rasmussen hungry for more.
The Rams will have to do so without two of their top players from last year. Gone are floor leader Sean Monk and the always exciting Montrell Grimes. But the Rams welcome back leading scorer Jamon Hawkins and point guard Tee Farley.
"Sean [Monk] had been with us for four years and Montrell [Grimes] was very aggressive, but Tee [Farley] and Jamon [Hawkins] both were starters last year so as far as leadership goes, I don’t think you’ve lost anything there," Rasmussen said. "It’s their team. There are the returning starters so I think it’s their team."
Rasmussen believes his two returning seniors will step into those roles and fill the voids left by Grimes and Monk.
"Obviously he [Hawkins] has a lot of ability and he has the ability to take over the game," Rasmussen said. "One of the things we’d like to see more is consistency with his jump shot and being more of a leader because we lost two seniors. We’d like Jamon to be more vocal and lead by example.
"Tee is fairly soft spoken, but being a second-year starting point guard, he needs to be a leader and take ownership of the team."
The Rams will need contributions from everyone. Overall, Newton is undersized, with junior center Chuck Edwards coming in at 6-foot-3. It’s not something the Rams aren’t used to. In last year’s playoff game against Redan, the Rams had to deal with two 6-foot-9 players in the post. This year will be much of the same and Rasmussen will look to a couple of first year starters to pick up the slack.
Sophomore Derrick Henry will line up at small forward and Rasmussen said he has been pleased at what he saw during summer league play.
"Interestingly, Derrick [Henry] who was sort of on the JV but was a varsity practice player last year, has really stepped up at times and at times, plays as well as anyone we have," he said. "He has a lot of ability and a great future so he’s been somewhat of a leader even though he is young. He was one of our most consistent players over the summer and in scrimmage so that has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise."
Newton has a more experienced front line despite returning no starters at the forward or center position. Demetrius McCray, who spent last year as the Rams' primary sixth man, and Jared Mann will split time at the forward position. McCray, who played this fall as Newton’s quarterback, has tremendous athleticism and the Rams will need him to play big. Rasmussen expects to use both players a lot this year.
"They will contribute a lot," Rasmussen said. "Demetrius [McCray] is still sort of getting used to things, coming from the other sport, but as a senior, he’ll show some leadership. We expect both of them to be key contributors this year."Edwards played with the varsity squad down the stretch last year and played well. Even though he is undersized at the center position, Rasmussen expects him to play hard and be a valuable asset.
Brandon Carlton should see time in relief of Farley and the Rams are hoping to get good minutes from Windell Darrington at the four or five position.
Newton had a successful off season. The Rams played 25 games over the summer and went 21-4. In the face of tough competition, the Rams responded well and that has Rasmussen optimistic entering the season.
"We have a very good idea of what we have," Rasmussen said. "We played some great teams and did very well.
Rasmussen has built a reputation of doing a lot with a little. Even though he plays in one of the toughest regions in the state, Newton’s floor general has consistently been able to get the most out of his players, regardless of size.
"The thing I like about the players is they all work very well together," Rasmussen said. "They all have great attitudes. None of the players have attitude problems and they all have goals. They want to do well and they don’t want to hurt themselves so it’s a great group of guys. They play well together."
The Rams made the final four in 2005 and Rasmussen said he wants to get back to the state playoffs. That may be easier said then done. One game over the summer proved to be a primer of what may come this season. The Rams recorded a 2-point win over a good opponent while shooting 50 percent from the field.
With virtually no room for error, Newton will have to rely on fundamentals and great teamwork – something Rasmussen is deft in.
"On paper you might say we look a little better," he said. "But our schedule is harder. It’s the toughest it’s been in 10 years. Region 2-AAAAA is definitely a basketball region so it will be quite a challenge."