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PREP BASKETBALL: Striving for Perfection
Strong hoops background gave young coach a solid foundation for success
Social Circle High School boys basketball coach Taylor Jackson has guided his team to an undefeated season for 2021-22 and is eager to see how far the team can advance in the postseason. - photo by Anthony Banks | The Covington News

Taylor Jackson has always loved basketball and been passionate about the game. He was a gym rat who grew up playing in recreation leagues and on both the high school and college levels.

But even he was shocked at the basketball-centric world he found himself in when he landed his first job as a coach as an assistant under Rick Rasmussen at Newton County in 2014.

“I wasn’t even officially an employee of the school system, and yet Coach Rasmussen expected me to be

there all the time,” Jackson recalled. “We would practice every day in the summer except for Sunday, and you didn’t bother planning a summer vacation. When the season started, you knew you would be practicing over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“His idea was, you only get four years to play and you better make the best of it.”

It was that mindset Jackson brought with him when he arrived at Social Circle as an assistant under Brian Anderson in 2017 to help turn around a program that had hit rock bottom. Social Circle hadn’t advanced to state in five years, not even been close. During that stretch, they had a combined record of 23-99.

“In all my years of coaching, I don’t think I’d ever seen anything like we found when we arrived at Social Circle,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t just rebuilding but having to start from scratch.”

Five years later, the Redskins find themselves 23-0 heading into the final week of the regular season and ranked No. 1 in the state in one prep poll. With a win over Washington-Wilkes last week, they secured the top seed in the Region 8-A Public tournament and a third consecutive berth in the state tournament.

For Jackson, who was handed the reins of the program in 2019 when Anderson left for Heritage in Conyers, his first head coaching gig has been nothing short of the perfect storm, but in a good way. In fewer than three full seasons, he picked up his 60th win with a recent victory over Lincoln County.

“You can’t do that without some incredible athletes who pull together as a team,” Jackson said.

The Redskins have rarely lacked for talented athletes, often having a player or two ranked among the top in scoring and rebounding in the county. But they weren’t always pulling in the same direction. Commitment and chemistry were the main focus of Anderson and Jackson when they arrived.

“It wasn’t a numbers issue,” Anderson said. “It was trying to get them to buy into playing a team game as a team. We wanted them to trust the coaching they were receiving and to buy in to certain standards and expectations.

“We spent a lot of time that first year running off guys who didn’t want to commit or be there with us.”

But a core group stuck it out, and they form the nucleus of this year’s squad that’s verging on an historic run. No Walton County boys team has ever won a GHSA state title.

After a dismal first year in which the Redskins won just six games, they turned a corner in 2018 with 18 wins and a third-place finish in the region.

A key point in the transformation happened midseason when the Redskins defeated perennial powerhouse Banks County, ending a six-game losing skid to the Leopards.

“That game showed the kids that if they worked hard they could compete against the best,” Jackson said.

Among the players who emerged in that game were freshmen K.J. Reid, Tyrhell Branch, Cam Gaither, and Trey Douglas.

When Jackson took over in the next year, he inherited an uber-talented group of youngsters who not only had varsity experience but who understood and accepted the high expectations.

Led by Branch and Reid, who averaged 20 and 15 points, respectively, the Redskins won 20 games. More importantly, they snapped a nine-year state tournament drought.

Jackson doubled down last year, pushing his squad even harder and harping on every detail. That led to another key point in the Redskins rebuild.

In mid-January, the Redskins suffered a heart-wrenching 1-point loss to Washington-Wilkes. After the game, Jackson did a self-evaluation and came to the conclusion he needed to dial it back a bit and trust his players to do the right thing.

“I had taught them well,” Jackson said. “I realized I didn’t have to be on their back all the time.”

The Redskins went on to win 12 of their next 15 , including their first victory in the state tournament in over a decade. The momentum has carried over into this season in a big way. Social Circle has dominated its region, winning by an average of 34 points. In non-league action, the Redskins have 11 wins over teams in higher classifications.

But all of that is insignificant in light of the ultimate goal, which they hope to achieve at the Macon Coliseum the middle of next month.

“We want to bring home the big trophy,” Jackson said