As the clock ticked down in the region title game, fans began to head towards the exit as the Northeast Raiders trailed Washington County by five with less than a minute to play.
The Raiders found a way to do what they have done all season long: win.
“Our guys were relentless and they didn’t want to lose,” head coach Kevin Grooms said. “You are talking about guys who have persevered through challenges.”
The Raiders clinched the one seed in the playoffs that night with the win and would go on to knock out Toombs County in first round by a score of 53-30.
While Northeast has put together a dominant 22-5 season, it wasn’t long ago they were learning how to win games. The senior class started their high school career with just three wins in their first season and six in their second.
Last year, the team broke through with 18 wins but did not find the postseason success they had hoped for.
Grooms said the players’ attitudes never wavered during the trying times.
“They never doubted anything we said to them, they just knew their season was coming,” he said. “We have a family bond here. It is a family atmosphere. So we love each other.”
The turning point in the season came before the Central game. Before each game, Grooms and his staff meet the players at the bottom of the stairs inside the school.
“They were already in a circle talking to each other and trying to get themselves mentally prepared for the game. They had their cell phones up and everything,” he said. “That lets you know that the culture and the things that we instill in our kids, they are actually listening to it. They believe in it.”
Senior forward Isaiah Hilson said this season has been a culmination of four years of hard work and is excited to get the chance to make a deep run in the postseason.
“It has been a miracle,” he said. “It means that we been trusting in our coach, getting better, working harder and we got a chance to do what we always dreamed to do.”
While the team is close knit like a family, they are currently without a home due to ongoing construction at Northeast. The team will host its Sweet 16 game at Southwest on Thursday at 7 p.m. against Hephzibah.
“We have been a good road team since I have been here. We like playing on the road so we just look at it that every game is on the road,” Grooms said. “(The only downfall is) my seniors because they don’t get a chance to play in their gym their senior year.”
While the team has been road warriors all season, they have also found a way to win with defense in an age of offensive firepower in basketball.
“We are a defensive team. That is a thing we pride ourself on,” Grooms said. “That has just been our game. Like I tell them all the time, defense wins championships, offense wins games. So that is one thing that we work on every day.”
Defense and a sense of family have become two of the cornerstones of Northeast’s successes this season. The other that Grooms believes is just as important is love.
“We love each other. We love the kids just like they are our kids,” he said. “They love us just like we are their dad. We just look out for each other and try to make the best out of our opportunities.”