First Class Program, First Place Trophies: Holland and Seniors Capture Second State Title

Every coach, player, and fan aspires to have a winning culture surrounding a sports program, yet so few grasp it and fully taste the fruits of it.

The Tift County High School basketball program, however, possesses a commanding influence and an unmistakable culture.

“When you see us, you will think, ‘There’s no doubt that’s a winner,’” Eric Holland, eighth-year head coach, said. “And to do that, we spend a lot of time developing men first and ball players second.”

Behind the leadership of Holland and his core group of seniors, including Preston “P.J.” Horne, Micah Johnson, and Fred Lloyd, the 2016-17 Tift County Blue Devils won the state championship in the Georgia High School Association’s highest classification for the second time in four years.

Winning titles was not an altogether unfamiliar feeling for the Blue Devils, who earned their second state championship in program history in 2014. This central group of seniors each played their roles on that team, even as freshmen, but as the team grew into their team, they met adversity and fell short on the court in back-to-back seasons.

2015 ended in a first-round loss to Newton by the score of 52-49, a shocking defeat for the 27-1, No. 1 seed Blue Devils.

2016 ended in bitter disappointment for another talented Blue Devils squad. In the Sweet 16 of the 2016 GHSA playoffs, a buzzer-beater by Milton filled the home locker room with tears of pain and disbelief.

But Coach Holland and his team went back to work just two short weeks after leaving that locker room, with hopes of redemption and vindication driving them as they prepared for the 2016-17 season.

But signing up to compete as a Blue Devil is no casual commitment; if you want to play basketball under coach Holland at Tift County High School, you better come ready to work, not just on the court, but in every facet of life as a student-athlete and growing young man ready for the next phase of life.

“The first thing you’ve got to do as a high school coach, and you’ve got to understand, is college culture,” Holland said. “You’ve got to know exactly what they are looking for, and you’ve got to make sure that you prepare your kids for that next step forward by creating a well-rounded athlete and person.”

For a program that doesn’t believe in an offseason but an “onseason,” the development of boys into men and proper basketball players is a year-long, all-encompassing process.

Off the court, Tift County players participate in self-imposed practices such as “Get Off the Court, Get in the Church”; “Dress for Success Monday’s”; eating breakfast together on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month; mandatory 40 hours of community service over the course of the year; and “Fit Block,” also known as study hall, every day after school, falling under their mantra of “Books First, Ball Second.”

More directly related to their basketball skills, they push through two-a-day practices at 6:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. during the season. But more importantly, every player and coach is held accountable to their self-imposed 26-step A-B-C Program, basketball credit score, and earns a rigorous P.H.D: Passing, Hard Work, and Dedication.

Some may ask how all of this translates into W’s on the court, but for Holland and the Blue Devils, buying in to this holistic approach is exactly what it means to win games, win championships, and win in life.

“We always talk about winning culture, winning environment, so we basically changed everything in terms of everything being first class, from our uniforms, to the way we travel, to the way we dress, to the way we act… Everything about our program is going to be first class,” Holland said with faith. “It is going to have a culture of winning. You’re going to say, ‘Winners live here.’”

With a clear culture and expectations at an all-time high from the insiders and outsiders of the program, the pressure could have easily crumpled the senior leadership, but they remained unfazed thanks to their testing experiences.

Forged in this crucible of comprehensive development was the trio of Horne, Johnson, and Lloyd. The power forward, point guard, and center, respectively, found support in each other as they sought to live up to expectations and achieve their goals.

“For me, Fred, and P.J., our bond was unbreakable,” Johnson said. “We’ve grown up together. Being able to talk to each other about basketball and everything else, on and off the court, it just developed a bond like brothers.”

“Back when they were in middle school, I told that group, ‘Hey, y’all are going to win at least one or two state championships before y’all graduate,’” Holland said. “They believed that. They all have a body of work that speaks on their passion and determination.”

The talented group led on and off the court, but Horne, Johnson, and Lloyd weren’t alone in their pursuit of a title. The three other seniors, Jay Johnson, Camden Collins, and Dawon Barnes, found ways to contribute alongside other quality minutes from the likes of juniors Rashod Bateman, Montavious Terrell, Chad Copeland, and Otis Jackson and sophomores Marquavious Johnson and Tyree Marshall.

“This group of guys, they do things the right way,” Horne said. “Everything starts off in practice, in the game, in the offseason, in the locker room, in the classroom. We always have to do the right thing.”

Consider that mission accomplished.

All these efforts translated into a final record for the season of 29-2 (5-1); the Blue Devils dominated nearly every single challenger that stepped onto the floor with them and collectively outscored their opponents 2101-1460 over those 31 games. But the road was not easy; their playoff journey to the title took them consecutively through battles against the state’s and nation’s top-ranked programs in Marietta, No. 8 Berkmar, No. 3 Newton, No. 1 McEachern, and No. 4 Norcross to capture the title.

Each of these programs were loaded with Division I talent – hailing from the traditionally dominant metro-Atlanta schools that are prone to transferring in talent – yet the home–grown talent of South Georgia’s premier program conquered them all in the face of being heavily underestimated.

“We were always the underdogs,” Lloyd said. “We weren’t bigger than other teams, but our mindset and our heart made us to where we could make things possible this year.”

With heart predominantly powered by internal culture, there is no denying the relentless support of the surrounding community and what it meant to once again bring a title back down I-75 to Tifton, Georgia.

“Being a Blue Devil really comes from the fans, because if you listen to the fans, you know how much power is behind the name Blue Devil basketball,” Horne said. “All of our fans bleed blue; everything comes from Tift County basketball. So for you to lead your players, your teammates, and the fans to a state championship, it’s an unbelievable feeling.”

The 2016-17 season was a triumphant and resounding finish to a remarkable run for Tift County High School. Amassing an overall record of 111-10, four consecutive region championships, and two state championships over the span of the past four years, the shoes couldn’t be any bigger to fill for future Blue Devils.

However, with a winning program with the engrained foundational concepts of proper prioritization, holistic development, and pervasive leadership, the next string of players and coaches are suited to fit within the same mold, even without their most successful class, and coach, in school history.

Because while P.J. Horne takes his talents to the highly competitive ACC by joining the Virginia Tech program, Micah Johnson hopes to make an early impact on the court at Alabama State University, and Fred Lloyd decides between the gridiron and the hardwood at the University of South Florida, coach Eric Holland has chosen to follow a path away from basketball altogether.

Having brought Tift County’s basketball program to the pinnacle of success, Holland will be stepping away from coaching as he has accepted the offer to become the Principal at Rome High School. Yet knowing how he always ran his basketball program and the schools in which he served as an administrator, he will certainly continue to bring the same culture of excellence to Rome, even without a court as his primary platform.

Under his leadership, Holland’s program won six Coach of the Year Awards on the state and national level, won eight consecutive region championships, had 20 wins in all eight of those seasons, made three Final Four appearances, won two state championships, and finished with an overall record of 203-34 (86 percent). His accomplishments as a coach are undeniable, but he knows that the impact beyond the court that he impressed upon his players will stand the test of time.

“It’s like I tell my guys all of the time: Your legacy is your leadership,” Holland said . “You want your legacy to be based on the leadership of our program. At some point people will forget that you scored 1,500 points or 1,800 points, but those kids will never forget the leadership you left on the program, and that’s what those three seniors have done: They left a leadership of success and a leadership of doing things the right way.”

Replacing such talent and leadership is a heavy burden, but the true test of a culture and a legacy is found in life beyond basketball. The core four of Holland, Horne, Johnson, and Lloyd exit their Blue Devils careers as proud champions, and deservedly so, but more important is their profound influence on all those around them.

“We built a program of a winning culture here that has, in my opinion, about 20 percent of what happened on the basketball court, 80 percent of what happened off the court,” Holland said. “If we continue to do that 80 percent that we feel is very important – just like what our mission statement says, we develop men first and basketball players second – we are going to always be successful in basketball at Tift County High School.”

 

A Foreshadowed Farewell

Little did I know when conducting this interview that this quote was a foreshadowing of the impending shift in career direction for coach Eric Holland. With his eyes set firmly on the development of individuals beyond basketball, however, it all fits together perfectly within the tapestry of his life’s work.

“I hope you know, one day when I’m done coaching ball, that I’m not viewed as the guy that was the ‘basketball coach,’ or ‘won two or however many state titles we may or possibly are going to win,’ but I want to be viewed as the guy who did everything he could to help a child,” Holland said. “That’s my motivation every day. I tell people all the time, ‘Coaching basketball is not my purpose; it’s my platform.’ I use my platform to serve my purpose of helping kids. Any time there is an opportunity to grow a boy into a man and teach him responsibility, I’m all fired up about that.”

Leaving a Legacy:

“The legacy I want to leave behind is just do the right thing, knowing that doing the right thing can make a difference in somebody’s life, and it can also lead you to a state championship.”

– Preston “P.J.” Horne, senior, power forward, First Team All-State

“The legacy that I hope I leave at this school and through other players and through people that go to school here is that you don’t have to have a big name to be able to achieve high goals that people don’t expect you to do. It’s what you expect yourself to do. You don’t have to be the biggest thing ever; just be what’s set out for you. Your goals that you plan, make sure you accomplish them.”

– Micah Johnson, senior, point guard, All-State Honorable Mention

“I want people to have the mindset of things not being impossible just because you are the underdog or because you are small. I want people to be able to reach their goals and always keep driving and pushing despite being underestimated.”

– Fred Lloyd, senior, center

Schedule/Key Stats:

Include if we have room; get LaDarius to create charts/graphs since he can dissect the stats

Home Away Neut Win % PF PA Strk
14-1 8-1 7-0 .935 2101 1460 10W

 

Date Opponent Result
11/187:30p Berrien (Nashville, GA)

Game Details: Tift County High

·       Box Score

(W) 75 – 36
11/196:00p Thomasville (Thomasville, GA)

Game Details: Thomasvile

·       Box Score

(W) 75 – 39
11/257:30p Montverde Academy (Montverde, FL)

Game Details: Florida-Georgia Challenge

·       Box Score

(L) 77 – 45
11/266:00p Lake Minneola (Minneola, FL)

Game Details: Florida-Georgia Challenge

·       Box Score

(W) 65 – 47
12/27:30p Lee County (Leesburg, GA)

Game Details: Lee County High School

·       Box Score

(W) 72 – 54
12/37:30p Valdosta (Valdosta, GA)

Game Details: Valdosta High School, Gym

·       Box Score

(W) 76 – 50
12/98:30p Turner County (Ashburn, GA)

Game Details: Tift County High

·       Box Score

(W) 78 – 42
12/107:00p Lee County (Leesburg, GA)

Game Details: Tift County High School, Gym

·       Box Score

(W) 72 – 34
12/167:00p Valdosta (Valdosta, GA)

Game Details: Tift County High School, Gym

·       Box Score

(W) 76 – 40
12/178:30p Coffee (Douglas, GA)

Game Details: Coffee

·       Box Score

(W) 54 – 45
12/228:00p Milton (Milton, GA)

Game Details: McDonald’s Invitational

·       Box Score

(W) 84 – 40
12/238:30p Duluth (Duluth, GA)

Game Details: McDonald’s Classic @ Tift Co.

·       Box Score

(W) 54 – 52
12/245:00p Westover (Albany, GA)

Game Details: McDonald’s Invitational

·       Box Score

(W) 72 – 48
12/282:00p Americus-Sumter (Americus, GA)

Game Details: Phillips Arena

·       Box Score

(W) 71 – 55
1/36:00p Thomasville (Thomasville, GA)

Game Details: Tift County High

·       Box Score

(W) 60 – 28
1/68:30p Lowndes (Valdosta, GA)

Game Details: Tift County High

·       Box Score

(W) 73 – 68
1/77:30p Bainbridge (Bainbridge, GA)

Game Details: Bainbridge High

·       Box Score

(W) 72 – 25
1/137:00p Colquitt County (Moultrie, GA)

Game Details: Tift County High School, Gym

·       Box Score

·       Rivalry Game

(W) 58 – 46
1/147:30p Camden County (Kingsland, GA)

Game Details: Camden High

·       Box Score

(W) 64 – 42
1/166:00p Fitzgerald (Fitzgerald, GA)

Game Details: Tift County High School, Gym

·       Box Score

(W) 84 – 46
1/207:00p Lowndes (Valdosta, GA)

Game Details: Tift County High School, Gym

·       Box Score

(L) 60 – 58
1/277:00p Colquitt County (Moultrie, GA)

Game Details: Colquitt County High School, Gym

·       Box Score

·       Rivalry Game

(W) 60 – 40
1/288:30p Coffee (Douglas, GA)

Game Details: Tift County High

·       Box Score

(W) 77 – 54
2/38:30p Bainbridge (Bainbridge, GA)

Game Details: Tift County High

·       Box Score

(W) 76 – 42
2/46:00p Camden County (Kingsland, GA)

Game Details: Tift County High School, Gym

·       Box Score

(W) 63 – 37
2/107:30p Colquitt County (Moultrie, GA)

Game Details: Region Championship

·       Box Score

·       Rivalry Game

(W) 64 – 47
2/18TBA
2/234:00p
3/17:00p

In the Game Magazine / South Georgia / June-July 2017

Tift County High School Basketball

First Class Program, First Place Trophies: Holland and Seniors Capture Second State Title

Written by Cole Parker

Photos by: Kyle Sandy