For the past two seasons, no team has been better in the county — in its region for that matter, than Newton’s boys. The Rams are the reigning two-time Region 2-AAAAA champions and compiled a 33-1 region record since 2009. In short, they’ve been atop the mountain for a while. But things will look a lot different this year.
Two-time region Player of the Year Derrick Henry graduated and his departure leaves a noticeable hole. He capped a stellar career at Newton by leading the Rams to the state playoffs in his junior and senior seasons and finished his career as the Rams’ second-leading scorer in history. With Henry moving on to play college basketball at Winthrop University, the Rams face the obvious task of replacing him.
“That’s where the question mark is,” Newton coach Rick Rasmussen said. “We have some talent. We have a good returning group yet we’re missing a guy that was all business and tough as nails. Not every year do you have a Division 1 player that is extremely competitive and tough. We did and mentality-wise, he’s probably the best we’ve ever coached.”
Two years ago the Rams made it the Class AAAAA Final Four and last year they went as far as the Elite Eight before falling to Valdosta. Several key players return to lead the Rams on another quest toward what they hope will be a third straight playoff appearance. Among them is shooting guard Stephen Croone.
After seeing limited time his sophomore season, Croone had a breakout junior season in which he was named to the All-Region team. Croone came into his own as a scorer last year, averaging nine points per game and was second in assists to turnover ratio. Croone’s athleticism has already garnered the attention of many college coaches. As it stands, he has several Division 1 schools interested and even one offer on the table. That said Rasmussen will be looking for even more development from his prized shooting guard.
“He’s (Croone) a young senior and he’s still working on his leadership capabilities so we’ll see how he evolves,” Rasmussen said. “He wouldn’t have been offered a Division 1 scholarship early if he didn’t have talent. He has the skill and the tools so it will be interesting to see how he responds.”
Henry isn’t the only key player lost to graduation. Willie Smith, the Rams’ leading rebounder and Alex Ordu, the team’s leading assist man, are also gone. Smith finished second on the team in blocked shots and was Newton’s second leading scorer while Ordu led the team in steals.
Looking to fill those voids will be Curtis Quinn and Shane Henry inside and Justin Thompson on the perimeter. Fortunately for Newton, all three saw significant playing time in 2010 and gained valuable experience.
Shane Henry in particular played a key part in Newton’s success. He came out of nowhere to lead the team in blocked shots and grew into a solid interior defender and rebounder. Shane Henry also developed a well-rounded offensive game as the season wore on. Justin Gates is also expected to be a key contributor as is Rahsard Cabane, last year's JV MVP.
“We have a lot of guys who have experience and we’re hoping they rise to the occasion,” Rasmussen said. “It’s going to be interesting. We had some instances (over the summer) where we got to see what would happen in tough moments and Stephen probably more than anybody stepped in there and hit some big shots for us — hit some game-winners and I think we have some guys who are gamers.”
The key to Newton’s success is obvious. How well the Rams fill the void left by Derrick Henry will likely determine whether they’ll be able to compete for a third straight region title. Derrick Henry averaged 23.3 points per game and led the team with 43 3-pointers. But numbers are one thing. The Rams will have to find a way to replace Derrick Henry’s leadership, something the now Winthrop Eagle excelled at. It's doubtful that will come from one player. Instead it's likely going to come from a collective effort.
“Last year we only had one returning starter. This year we have two,” Rasmussen said. “We actually have more game experience; we just don’t have the one tough-as-nails guy and we don’t have the 20 points per game we had for three years. Stephen is capable of that and JT can score but you don’t have that one steady guy. We are also trying to extend our bench and get deeper.
“Derrick is really irreplaceable but you have to move on and we’re looking forward to that challenge.”
One player perhaps ready to assume such a role is Thompson. As Ordu’s backup, Thompson saw a lot of action in key moments throughout last season. When given the opportunity, he excelled. He led the team in 3-point percentage and showed a penchant for making big shots in key situations. He is a steady presence on the floor and knows the intricacies of Rasmussen’s motion offense. Thompson will be a good compliment to Croone’s playmaking and Rasmussen is excited to see what his new backcourt can do.
“JT is a very strong defender and he can do some things for us,” Rasmussen said. “He and Stephen are very good together. They can both score and can defend the perimeter. We're solid in the backcourt with those two.”
While the Rams have been saddled with a size disadvantage during Rasmussen’s tenure, that hasn’t stopped them from winning. A lot of their recent success had to do with Derrick Henry for sure, but Rasmussen is quick to point out his system is designed to maximize opportunity. The Rams don’t turn the ball over much and they traditionally shoot a high percentage. They rebound as a team and generally play solid team defense.
All those factors will again be at a premium this year as Newton is clearly the hunted. That said, Rasmussen doesn’t dwell on the fact his team is the reigning region champion. Instead he’s focusing on finding a rotation that will execute and give his team a chance to win.
Rasmussen is also quick to downplay the fact that his team is the team to beat. Newton approaches the season with the same reservations each year. In reality, without the services of the best player he’s ever coached, Newton enters this season as a bit of an unknown.
“This team is maybe a little tougher than the one we had last year defensively,” Rasmussen said. “They take a lot of charges. But mentally, the mental toughness, we’ll have to prove ourselves. For this particular year it’s how bad do you want it? There are some big shoes to fill for sure so we’ll have a challenge ahead but I think we are up to for it.”