Holmes: ‘My guys are up for the challenge’

Coach Xavier Holmes guides players in a defensive drill during Travis Williams’ basketball camp last month.

TIFTON — Tift County’s Blue Devils basketball team have had an off-season that is nothing short of tumultuous. Last week, however, the program got a bit of stability when assistant Xavier Holmes was promoted.

Holmes is the interim head coach this season, said Tift County Schools Superintendent Adam Hathaway. He takes over for Chris Wade, who took an administrative position in Turner County mid-summer.

“It quickly became a no-brainer about what the solution was,” said Hathaway. “He has done a good job in the interim, making sure the kids are where they are supposed to be and doing what they are supposed to do, and really looking after our players in the absence of a named head coach.”

“I’m very thankful for the opportunity Mr. Hathaway has given me,” said Holmes. He is a veteran of the basketball staff. A Tift native who played for head coach Tommy Blackshear, he has been with the school system for 12 years. Besides Tift County, Holmes also coached in neighboring Cook.

Hathaway said he was “very excited about this opportunity” for Holmes. They have conversed about his interim status, which means a coaching search will be opened back up at the end of the season. In between, Holmes will have the opportunity to show his skills leading a team.

In May, Tift County had four boys high school basketball coaches: Wade, Holmes, Dallas Neloms and Anthony Bateman. Neloms was soon hired for his first head coaching job at Berrien. Wade left at the end of June for Turner County, where he is an assistant principal and athletic director. Bateman died unexpectedly earlier this month.

That leaves just Holmes at the high school level. He has already gotten one coach for his high school staff, James Golson. Golson will focus on defense, a pride of Tift’s. He has spent a handful of seasons coaching at the middle school level.

Holmes said Golson’s skill in that department is “my main reason for bringing him up.”

“We want to maintain that type of philosophy,” said Holmes. The Blue Devils gave up 47.7 points per game last year, fewer than any other team in the region. Outside of Golson, he is considering more options to help out with the team. “My staff is not sealed yet,” he said.

Holmes admits the squad itself will be “fairly inexperienced.” Jatarion Warren, who was the second leading scorer on the team at 11.4 points per game, will be back. The next highest scorer available to return? Wendell McClain, who scored 42 points for the season. Tye Conner ranks close behind him, as does Azaria Smith. Few seniors will play this season. Warren is just a junior.

Further limiting the team, many members of the roster won’t be available until after football season ends. McClain and Conner are among those playing both sports.

The youth have a big challenge ahead of them after last season’s semifinals appearance. The Blue Devils have won the last seven Region 1-AAAAAAA championships. They also possess the longest current streak for making the state tournament for any boys team in the state. The last time Tift missed state was in 1993.

Holmes said he knows the other teams in the region — Camden County, Colquitt County and Lowndes — are aiming for them. It’s his team’s motivation, he said. “My guys are up to the challenge.”

Bateman’s death was particularly tough for Holmes. They’d worked together for years and Bateman was delighted Holmes had applied to take over as head coach.

“I love my wife to death,” said Holmes, but said Bateman was “my biggest supporter.” After being named interim head coach, Holmes said he wished he could call Bateman to let him know the news.

Holmes is the only coach of the four left. He’ll be a stabilizing force for the players. At the same time, he said, “They were more of a stabilizing force for me.”

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