COVINGTON, Ga. —Newton County has long been a hotbed for basketball talent.
For proof, look no further than the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, where a pair of players who once graced the hardwood at Eastside and Newton competed in college basketball’s largest spectacle.
Despite the bizarre circumstances that every athletic program in the country has found itself navigating since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, our area once again proved to be home to some of the best prep basketball talent talent in the state during the 2020-21 campaign.
Alcovy, Eastside, Newton and Social Circle had varying degrees of success in their most recent boys’ and girls’ basketball seasons. But regardless of the final number in the win and loss columns, the county’s talent pool was undoubtedly deep in both leagues.
Following a careful examination of the product put on display by all the basketball programs in our coverage area this season, it’s now an honor to present the 2021 All-Covington News Basketball Teams.
Girls’ Coach of the Year: Tiffani Johnson (Newton)
Newton head coach Tiffani Johnson led the Lady Rams to a historic campaign this winter.
With the departure of eight seniors from a team that won 16 games a season ago, as well as a drastically different offseason due to the pandemic, it was unclear what type of squad Newton would field this year. The unanswered questions about the team’s chemistry were glaring early on, as they stumbled their way to a 6-10 mark in the regular season.
However, the Lady Rams did just enough to sneak into the Class AAAAAAA state playoffs as a No. 4 seed out of the five-team Region 4. By the time the tournament rolled around, Johnson had helped her group see their potential when they worked together as a unit.
“There was a weird, unprecedented time that you had to go through to get to where you wanted to get to,” Johnson said. “It was one of those seasons where every coach in America was adapting to something never experienced before. I on’t think we were an exception to any other team. We just happened to kind of come together at the right time.”
The result was an admirable Cinderella story.
The Lady Rams went on the road in the opening round and took down No. 1 seed Tift County, 50-38. They kept their season alive in the second round with another upset victory, this time knocking off No. 2 seed North Paulding, 55-46, to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2018.
Johnson witnessed her team growing more confident in themselves and growing their trust in one another. The playoff run was ended in the third round by eventual state runner-up Woodstock, but the experience garnered during it will be invaluable going forward.
“I was glad we had the experience of what what we look like when we gel,” Johnson said. “Looking back, it’ll just be all of the little things we were able to overcome. All of the experience and being battle-tested. Knowing that if we were able to get through that, there’s not too much else we won’t be able to handle next year.”
Girls’ Player of the Year: Sanaa Tripp (Newton)
One of the catalysts of Newton’s Elite Eight run was freshman phenom Sanaa Tripp.
Tripp is a versatile point guard who proved a nightmare for opponents on a nightly basis. She showcased the ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc while also excelling at creating space to get to the bucket. When the ball wasn’t in her hands, she traversed the court and found areas that set her up for prime scoring opportunities.
“She’s an old-school gym rat who loves the game” Newton head coach Tiffani Johnson said of Tripp. “She watches it, absorbs it, does everything with it, so I think she’ll be just fine.”
Tripp made the jump from middle school basketball in eighth grade to starting at the varsity level in the state’s highest classification as a freshman. It was a leap not many could make, but one she found wasn’t as difficult as she initially presumed.
“The atmosphere here is very different from middle school, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” Tripp said. “It was easier because I kind of block everything out once I start playing. Of course, the completion was definitely a good jump, but I was still able to work hard in our to fit — well, stand out — as I did.”
Tripp averaged 21 points seven rebounds and five steals per game during her freshman season. She credited her coaching staff and teammates with making the transition feel seamless by being welcoming and instructive.
“They all believed in me, which boosted the confidence I had in myself. I wouldn’t be here without them,” she said. “And honestly we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we did without teamwork, without working together. I was glad that I was able to put in as big of a part as I did.”
With three years of varsity basketball left to play, Tripp is dedicated to the continued development of her craft. She hopes to work toward becoming a better individual player, as well as being more vocal as a leader and filling in as glue that holds her team together.
And when Tripp sets her mind to a goal, more often than not she’s going to put in the work needed to achieve it. That’s simply the type of person she is.
“You’re told that hard work beat talent when talent doesn’t work hard. Yeah, but when your talent works hard, then it’s really tough to beat,” Johnson said. “I think she’s a great example of that.”
Boys’ Coach of the Year: Dorrian Randolph (Eastside)
Last June, after taking the head coaching job at Eastside following a season as associate head coach for Salem, Randolph made his primary goal crystal clear.
He wanted to put the Eagles back in the postseason.
Eastside had missed out on the state playoffs three years in a row, and Randolph was determined to instill a culture and game plan that would help change their fortune. One season in, he managed to do just that.
Under Randolph’s guidance, the Eagles stormed their way to a runner-up finish in the Region 8-AAAAA tournament to earn their first state playoff berth since 2017.
The celebration didn’t last very long. No. 2 seed Eastside drew a date with No. 3 Decatur, which led to a 55-48 defeat on the Eagles’ home court. Any time a coach loses the final game of the season, it’s difficult to view the year as a resounding success.
But time heals all wounds. Now, reflecting on his first season in green and white, Randolph has a renewed appreciation for the Eagles’ flight to the playoffs.
“Being able to sit back now and actually look at the season, I find myself saying, ‘Man, you really accomplished something,” said Randolph. “Of course you never want the season to end [with a loss,] but I think we had a great year.”
Eastside broke tryouts with eight active players on the roster. A lengthy playoff run by the football team kept key players off the court for the first month of the season, and the club worked to grasp the schematic concepts of their first-year head coach.
But the program turned a corner in January after a lethargic start to the season.
The Eagles won eight of their final 10 regular-season games before knocking out Jackson County and Greenbrier in the region tournament in a pair of thrillers to earn a trip to the region title game.
“We just kind of hit the ground running at the right time,” Randolph said
Boys’ Player of the Year: T.J. Clark (Newton)
T.J. Clark led the Rams in scoring this season with 14.2 points per game. He was a menace all over the court, registering 3.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.8 steals per contest as well.
But perhaps what made the Newton junior the leading candidate for Player of the Year wasn’t the numbers on the stat sheet, but the off-court qualities of the player behind them.
The program entered the 2020-21 season with no clear leader in place as several projected starters had seen minimal minutes a season ago.
In stepped Clark.
“From my sophomore to my junior year, I had to show leadership. Last year I was basically a role player, so this year was a little different,” Clark said. “I had to step up, show leadership and just try to carry the team so we could all play together.”
Clark came to the realization that a leader of the team doesn’t always have to be the most vocal. Instead, he set an example for his teammates through his actions by setting the tone in every single practice.
“His energy that he brings everyday to practice, workouts, the weight room, running — anything that we’re doing — he is always the most energetic guy,” Newton head coach Charlemagne Gibbons said. “I think that kind of set the tone for the rest of the guys and showed them that you’ve got to bring your energy in order to be in our program and compete at a high level.”
The team’s leading scorer, Clark stepped up when the lights were brightest. He poured in a game-high 23 points in a first-round victory over Colquitt County and followed it up with 32 points in a losing effort against top-seeded Pebblebrook.
“He competes every day so you’re not surprised,” Gibbons said. “Guys surprise you when they don’t compete in practice and they play well in games. He competes in every practice, so I’m not surprised when we play these high-level teams and he gives the performance he does.”