When Rasul Chester moved from Stephenson to Miller Grove, he inherited a state championship program that had lost all five starters. So he has a different slant of what it means to defend a state championship.
"We're trying to win a state championship," Chester said. "We didn't have any returning starters, so we're trying to get our state championship."
The Wolverines have won a state title in seven of the last eight seasons. Coach Sharman White, who built the program, was lured away by Georgia State and turned things over to Chester, who had spent four seasons at Miller Grove as an assistant. Chester had definitely earned his stripes and won two DeKalb County junior varsity titles before going to Stephenson for a year -- with White's blessings. When White left, it was natural for Chester to get the call to replace his mentor.
And with the playoffs starting this weekend, Miller Grove will again be under the spotlight. The Wolverines are almost expected to be there at the end of the tournament.
"Our motto is 'Keep Growing,'" Chester said. "We want to get better today. This is a player-driven team. Everybody knows the standard and continues to lift it up."
Miller Grove is led by senior Naquante Hardy, who averages 20 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.7 steals. He has been the team's leader and consistent force throughout the season.
"Night after night he continues to give us a lift," Chester said.
Other major contributors are senior point guard George Wilson, juniors Jermon Clark (9.1 points, 5.4 rebounds), Kevin Paige (6.2 points, 7.8 rebounds) and Lorenzo Anderson (7.9 points) and sophomores Maurice Harvey (6.6 points) and Jalen Mason (6.5 points). Mason scored the game-winning basket in the region championship game against Columbia.
Miller Grove opens the playoffs at home against Paulding County (11-17) on Saturday 6 p.m.
"We know they'll play us very tough," Chester said. "They will compete against us at a high level. You can't go on their record. They're one of the last 32 and they play in a tough region. We've got to play Wolverine basketball in order to punch our ticket to the next round."
Flowery Branch (18-8) at Riverwood (21-5): Both teams are trying to bounce back from disappointments. Flowery Branch was ranked as high as ninth in the state but dropped to third place in Region 8 after being upset by Loganville. Riverwood was ranked ninth in the final regular-season poll but got knocked off by Carver in the Region 6 championship game.
Union Grove (21-7) at New Hampstead (16-8): Union Grove was ranked was ranked 10th in the final poll, but lost to Dutchtown in the Region 4-semifinals. New Hampstead was ranked as high as sixth in the state but lost to Statesboro in the Region 2 finale. Union Grove is led by all-region players Austin Atkins (12 points) and Wesley Simpson (10 points seven assists).
Carrollton (19-9) at Columbia (20-7): The Trojans were the top seed in Region 7, but fell into the consolation bracket after losing to Villa Rica and wound up in third place. Columbia is the No. 5-ranked team in the state and reached the Region 5 championship game before coming up two points short against Miller Grove.
Harris County (9-17) at Starr’s Mill (17-10): Harris County was upset by Veterans in the Region 1 semifinals and finished third. Starr’s Mill lost to Fayette County by 30 points in the Region 3 championship game.
Southwest DeKalb (16-12) at Kell (21-7): No. 8-ranked Southwest DeKalb may be the best third-seeded team in the tournament. The Panthers lost a hard-fought game to Columbia in the Region 5 semifinals and won the consolation final. Kell emerged as the runner-up in highly competitive Region 7. Mandarius Dickerson (13.4 points) leads Southwest DeKalb.
Villa Rica (25-3) at Arabia Mountain (19-5): This is the premier first-round girls game. Villa Rica is ranked No. 8 in the state, but lost to Cass in the Region 7 semifinals. Arabia Moutain was ranked as high as 10th in the state, but had the misfortune of playing in the same Region 5 as mighty Southwest DeKalb, who defeated the Rams for the third time this season in the region final. The team features two highly regarded sophomores -- Arabia Mountain's 6-1 Kennedi Manning, who averages 12 points and 9.3 rebounds, and Villa Rica's Deasia Merrill, who averages 23 points and 10.3 assists.
Woodland (18-9) at Ware County (24-4): Woodland was upset by Dutchtown in the Region 4 semifinals and wound up in third place. Ware County reached the Region 2 title game before losing to Statesboro. Woodland is led by Diamond Atkins (11 points) and Joslyn Jones.
Columbia (16-7) at Cass (20-7): Columbia finished third in Region 5, but is the only team to beat No. 1-ranked Griffin this season. Cass upset No. 8 Villa Rica in the Region 7 semifinals, but lost to Carrollton in the championship round.
Fayette County (20-8) at Bainbridge (19-8): Fayette has been a solid No. 2 in Region 3 all season, but lost to McIntosh in the semifinal round and finished in third place. Bainbridge, which was 10th in the final regular-season poll, fell to Warner Robins in the Region 1 finale.
Wayne County (17-6) at Dutchtown (16-7): Wayne County was upset by Statesboro in the Region 2 tournament and wound up finishing third. Dutchtown got some momentum working in the Region 4 playoffs and upset Woodland to reach the championship game, where it lost to Eagle’s Landing. Dutchtown's top players are Asia White (14 points), Jordan Maney and E'myah Carter.
R8/#3 Loganville (16-12) at R6/#2 Lithia Springs (14-12), 6 p.m.
R2/#4 South Effingham (7-21) at R4/#1 Eagle’s Landing (23-3), 6:30 p.m.
R1/#3 Harris County (18-6) at R3/#2 McIntosh (19-8), 7 p.m.
R7/#4 Kell (15-13) at R5/#1 Southwest DeKalb (22-4), 6:30 p.m.
R6/#3 North Springs (12-10) at R8/#2 Flowery Branch (21-6), 6 p.m.
R3/#3 Fayette County (20-8) at R1/#2 Bainbridge (19-8). 6 p.m.
R5/#4 Chamblee (11-11) at R7/#1 Carrollton (27-1), 6 p.m.
R4/#3 Woodland-Stockbridge (18-9) at R2/#2 Ware County (24-4), 6 p.m.
R5/#3 Columbia (16-7) at R7/#2 Cass (20-7), 7 p.m.
R3/#4 Morrow (11-16) at R1/#1 Warner Robins (25-1), 5:30 p.m.
R2/#3 Wayne County (17-6) at R4/#2 Dutchtown (16-7), 5:30 p.m.
R8/#4 Clarke Central (11-15) at R6/#1 Maynard Jackson (21-2), 6 p.m.
R7/#3 Villa Rica (25-3) at R5/#2 Arabia Mountain (19-5), 6:30 p.m.
R1/#4 Veterans (11-14) at R3/#1 Griffin (25-1), 6 p.m.
R2/#4 Wayne County (11-16) at R4/#1 Eagle’s Landing (19-6), 8:30 p.m.
R2/#3 Ware County (12-12) at R4/#2 Dutchtown (19-7), 7:30 p.m.
R6/#4 Decatur (16-10) at R8/#1 Buford (24-2), 5 p.m.
R4/#4 Locust Grove (17-11) at R2/#1 Statesboro (18-8), 6 pm.
R8/#3 Flowery Branch (18-8) at R6/#2 Riverwood (21-5), 5:30 p.m.
R1/#3 Harris County (9-17) at R3/#2 Starr’s Mill (17-10), 6 p.m.
R7/#4 Paulding County (11-17) at R5/#1 Miller Grove (17-8), 6 p.m.
R6/#3 Maynard Jackson (19-8) at R8/#2 Cedar Shoals (23-4), 5 p.m.
R4/#4 Jones County (13-14) at R2/#1 Statesboro (18-9), 8 p.m.
R3/#3 Riverdale (11-11) at R1/#2 Veterans (11-12), 3 p.m.
R5/#4 Lithonia (11-15) at R7/#1 Villa Rica (21-6), 7 p.m.
R4/#3 Union Grove (21-7) at R2/#2 New Hampstead (16-8), 5:30 p.m.
R6/#4 Lithia Springs (15-11) at R8/#1 Buford (24-2), 6:30 p.m.
R5/#3 Southwest DeKalb (16-12) at R7/#2 Kell (21-7), 4 p.m.
R3/#4 Griffin (6-20) at R1/#1 Warner Robins (23-3), 3:30 p.m.
R8/#4 Loganville (13-13) at R6/#1 Carver-Atlanta (15-13), 3 p.m.
R7/#3 Carrollton (19-9) at R5/#2 Columbia (20-7), 6 p.m.
R1/#4 Bainbridge (10-17) at R3/#1 Fayette County (20-7), 6 p.m.