Tifton Gazette

July 1, 2014

Tifton Eagles headed for AAU nationals

Becky Taylor

TIFTON — It was a scene you would expect to see in January.

A full gym in Valdosta, head coaches from Tift County, Valdosta and Lowndes in the house and a basketball game between arch-rivals.

It sounds like a typical high school game between Tift and Valdosta. Except this was not exactly the case. There were Blue Devils and there were Wildcats, but for the most part, this was the younger set, those belonging to AAU squads Tifton Eagles and the Valdosta City Lakers.

Age was of little matter to the crowd.

It became "highly intensive," according to coach Anthony Dennard. The Eagles put up a 55-37 victory and won the crown at the Valdosta Invitational.

The event is not a one-time thing. Dennard and Tifton have been busy all summer. They are headed to Tavares, Fla., next Monday, playing in the Division II national championship.

"Basketball is year-round," he said.

Dennard hopes the experience will be a bit better than last year, when they took third. They would have gone further, but "a team beat us on a luck shot." He believes they have an excellent shot of winning it all, but that will come with a price. Tifton has to win 10 straight games and they have a target on their backs: they are ranked No. 2 out of a 96-team field.

The Eagles are not exclusively Tift County players, but all but three are, said Dennard. That means nearly all of them will be suiting up for the blue and white.

The team roster contains both familiar and unfamiliar names to those who just follow the varsity Devils. Tyrie Jackson and Preston Horne had extensive playing time last season and Deion White, Fred Lloyd and Micah Johnson each saw minutes off the bench.

On the flip side, there are individuals such as Michael Graydon and Trey Taylor, who were exclusively on the junior varsity and Adam Hester and Tyree Marshall, who have been in middle school.

Marshall is the youngest player on the squad, said Dennard, and a rising eighth grader. "By the time Tyree finishes high school, he'll be the No. 1 point guard in Georgia," he said. Hester, who is expected to play at the varsity level this year, is 6'8" and someone that Devils head coach Dr. Eric Holland said earlier was really coming around on offense.

This is the last AAU team action for Dennard this summer, but he and the players will remain busy.

Horne, Johnson and Jackson are all members of the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, he said. He will be going with Horne and Johnson to Las Vegas at the end of the month for events and Jackson will be playing at the Nike Peach Jam at North Augusta, S.C. July 16-20.

Johnson, the least known of the trio, spent most of his time playing ninth grade and junior varsity and was said to have averaged over 30 points per game on the former, including a 37-point outburst against Lowndes.

"They don't know he can do all the things he can do," said Dennard.

It is the nature of the tournaments and camps, he said. As one player for a team gets attention, it brings more scouts out to games. There, they begin to notice even more team members. That has been the case with Jackson.

Previously recognized as being the younger brother of Tadric Jackson, he has been opening eyes as camps. "People are surprised how good he is," Dennard said. "They go, 'Wow, he's good.'"