At 4 p.m. on Saturday at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion, the unranked Swainsboro Tigers will play South Atlanta -- a team that's been ranked No. 1 all season -- for the Class AA boys basketball championship. For any team, reaching the title game as an unranked underdog makes for a great Cinderella season. But for the Tigers, the story runs so much deeper, and far beyond the game of basketball.
To understand how the Swainsboro Tigers have gotten to this point -- on the brink of winning their first title in 21 years -- a closer look at what the team has endured over the past 11 months is necessary.
During a weekend in April of 2016, Brice Hobbs decided to attend a track meet at Southeast Bulloch that Jenkins County was competing in. At the time, Hobbs was coach of Jenkins County's basketball team, but maintained an interest in track. After all, he had guided the Swainsboro boys track team to an AA title in 2007. He was around coaches and athletes, with the competition about to start when his phone rang. On the other end was someone with awful news.
One of his best friends, Bobby Andrews, was dead. Andrews had passed away on his 53rd birthday from complications following heart surgery that had taken place weeks before. Not only was Andrews the boys basketball coach at Swainsboro, he was a fixture at the school and in the community. For nearly three decades, he served as a teacher and athletics coach at Swainsboro, working as an assistant on the football staff and guiding the girls basketball team to a 2002 AAA state title game appearance. He then took over as boys basketball coach ahead of the 2012-13 season. He was also a deacon for 17 years at The Greater St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Swainsboro.
The news was too much for Hobbs to take. He tried to make a dash for his car before breaking into tears, but was struggling to fight back the emotions.
"People were trying to stop me to find out what was wrong," Hobbs said. "I just went to my truck and cried for 30 minutes. I couldn't hold it back. I called my wife and told her to come get me. It was more than just sports for us. He was like a brother."
Hobbs and Andrews became good friends while working as defensive assistants on the Swainsboro football staff for almost all of the 2000s.
"We just bonded because we were both on the defensive side of the ball," Hobbs said. "And it just went from there. We became great friends and we were together (on the football staff) for so long, pushing guys to their limits. We were friends away from the school too, hanging out at parties and things like that. We were good friends."
Following Andrews' surgery, he appeared to be doing OK. He was out in the community and everyone, including Hobbs, believed he was going to move past his health concerns and even resume his coaching duties.
But Andrews also knew he may have to miss time from coaching to tend to health matters, so he devised a plan. He wanted to build a new staff with Hobbs as his top assistant, along with Neal David, Dwight Smith and Quin (pronounced "Kwon") McKinney.
David was already an assistant on the staff, with his first season being in 2015-16. He played for the Tigers football team on defense in the early 2000s, with Andrews serving as both a coach and father figure, the way Andrews did for so many of the students. Another of those students was Smith, who also played for the Tigers defense under Andrews in the mid-2000s, going on to enjoy a successful college career at Middle Tennessee State.
McKinney played on the Swainsboro hoops team in the early 2000s, before Andrews took over the program, but had formed a relationship with Andrews at the church. McKinney led Swainsboro's middle school basketball teams to championship appearances three times in four seasons from 2010-14. He's also the older brother of Swainsboro's top player, Jaylan McKinney, who recently earned Region 2 Player of the Year honors.
Initially, Hobbs wasn't sure if he wanted to accept Andrews' offer. He was happy at Jenkins County and was the head coach there. Smith was an assistant on Valdosta State's football staff. But after Andrews passed, the four men came together to form the staff Andrews envisioned, with Hobbs tabbed as head coach.
"This is what he wanted," Hobbs said.
Moving on was not going to be easy for the team, school or community. The players were devastated. As Hobbs explains, Andrews was a "godfather" and was known by the nickname "Big Bobby," a term of endearment that referenced his heavy-set size.
"He was not only a coach, but a loving man," Hobbs said. "He touched a lot of kids' lives -- boys and girls -- as well as teachers."
From a basketball standpoint, prospects were looking up for the program. They were coming off an 18-9 season, going 11-1 in Region 3 of AA and narrowly losing to Dublin in the region championship. They came within three points of advancing to the AA quarterfinals, losing 61-58 to Holy Innocents' in the second round.
Most importantly, they had Jaylan, a 5-foot-7 point guard, returning for his senior season. The team had t-shirts honoring Andrews made and were dedicating the 2016-17 season to him. The team was optimistic and the staff was ready to carry out Andrews' coaching plan. The players were familiar with Hobbs, and they would play in the same system implemented by Andrews.
"I felt like it was going to be an easy transition," Hobbs said.
That wasn't the case early on. The Tigers began the season 0-3, with all losses coming by double digits. It had been a long, hard summer that bled into fall and then winter, and the players and coaches were still getting a feel for each other.
"It was a rocky road at first," Hobbs said.
The road only got rockier. The Tigers beat Vidalia on Dec. 2 for their first win of the season and had a game at AAAAA's Statesboro the next day. Shortly before tip-off, Hobbs received a phone call. His mother had passed away. He left the arena abruptly under circumstances eerily similar to those back in April, when he left Southeast Bulloch's stadium after learning of Andrews' passing.
Now the 1-3 Tigers found themselves on the road, playing a Statesboro team (currently ranked No. 10 in AAAAA) they hadn't beaten in five years, and now without their head coach. Hobbs briefly addressed the staff before leaving. David was left in charge.
"It was shocking," David said. "He just walked in, told us what happened and said he had to go. He told us to take care of business. We (the staff) talked it over, then went to the players and talked to them. We just wanted to take the pressure off of them, so we told them to just go out there and play their game. Pull it out for coach and play how he wants us to play."
Four quarters and two overtimes later, the Tigers had clawed their way to a 59-53 win.
"That was a great win for the program and a great win for coach Hobbs, given what he was dealt with," David said.
That win was the second in what turned out to be a six-game win streak, tied for their season best along with their current win streak, which has guided them to the title game. But as big as the Statesboro game and the accompanying win streak was, that wasn't the turning point in the Tigers' season.
At the end of 2016, the Tigers returned to Statesboro to compete in the Gentlemen's Classic holiday tournament, their win streak still intact. They went 0-3 at the event, losing the first game by 30. The players were looking tired toward the end of games and Hobbs' assistants approached him with a plan immediately after getting off the team bus from the event.
"We came back to the gym that night," Hobbs said. "We talked as a staff, and they told me, 'you're not the same coach you used to be. You have got to go back to running them.' I didn't get mad or upset. They told me to pick it up, so Tuesday after the (Christmas) break, I told the principal (Denise Warnock) that I was probably going to upset some kids and parents, but that we're going to have to run (the players). I told her this is it, I'm probably going to lose my job if she didn't back me."
Warnock backed Hobbs, and the first practice of 2017 was rigorous, as would be every practice from that point forward. They would begin with 10 laps around the gym in less than three minutes, followed by free-throw shooting. That drill would be repeated over and over. At the free-throw line, if a player missed an attempt, he'd have to run a full-court suicide in less than nine seconds.
As Hobbs had predicted, the new practice format wasn't met by the players with open arms.
"Everybody was mad," Jaylan said. "It was tough and we almost wanted to quit, but we stayed together."
"The first day they were laying on the floor like cows in a pasture," Hobbs said. "That was the breaking point. I don't take credit for that. The coaching staff did that. We wouldn't be here right now (without the practice adjustment), no doubt."
The extra conditioning paid off. The Tigers are 15-4 in 2017 with one game left. Compare that to their 5-6 start to the season and those grueling practices are an easy point of reference as to why they're playing with more consistency.
"It's been a huge factor," Jaylan said. "Running got us in shape and helped us play more minutes, especially in the playoffs."
After a rough start to the season, the Tigers put it all together just in time for their remarkable postseason run. In the Region 2-AA championship, they beat Metter to earn a No. 1 seed for the state playoffs. The feat was extra special for Hobbs because Metter is his alma mater.
In the state playoffs, the Tigers made easy work of Westside in the first round, winning 80-55. Round 2 and beyond have presented stiff challenges, but they've answered the bell to this point. In their second-round matchup, they notched a 68-62 win over Monticello, a team that reached the AA semifinals last year.
In the quarterfinals, the Tigers won a coin flip that allowed them to host another No. 1 seed, the Chattooga Indians, who are ranked No. 8 and had lost just one game all season. The Tigers' season appeared to be slipping away as they were down by nine with four minutes remaining, but they made a run capped by three late free throws from Jaylyn that guided the Tigers to a 64-61 win.
In the semifinals at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, the Tigers played No. 5 Dublin from Region 3, a team that just last season was the region foe that beat them in the Region 2-AA championship. Jaylan scored a game-high 32 points, out-dueling Dublin's Kameron Pauldo (27 points), on the Tigers’ way to a 68-64 win.
"Getting back at Dublin was great," Quin said.
Now, there's one game left to win for the Tigers to complete their mission and to pull it off, they'll have to beat the best team in AA. They'll also have to do it at a venue that's less than 12 miles from South Atlanta's campus. McCamish Pavilion is a three-hour bus ride for the Tigers.
Hobbs said the Tigers are in the proper mindset to pull off the upset, which would bring the program its first title since the 1995-96 season, when they were AA champions.
"Right now, our kids are so locked in they're not thinking about that," Hobbs said of the venue's distance. "They're thinking about practice and getting it done. We've been the underdog all season and we’re hungry and ready to play."
Regardless of Saturday's outcome, everything that's happened to the Tigers over the past 11 months has resulted in an improbable run -- one that was envisioned by Andrews shortly before he passed.
"This season has been a blessing," Hobbs said. "We don't get here without this staff that he handpicked."
“We’re playing this game for coach Andrews,” Jaylan added.
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