WES’s WISDOM: It’s been an unforgettable hoops season, and the best is yet to come

It’s been a fascinating season of high school basketball.

In this crazy year full of postponements, cancellations, and exciting new region tournaments, we’ve seen some moments this winter that we’ll remember for a long time. A pair of standout boys came to the island and led their teams to incredible heights, while a group of freshman phenoms proved that the future of girls’ basketball is already here.

We’ve seen a boys squad emerge as a state contender thanks to a record-breaking senior star, a girls team looking to build off last year and go all the way, and a full-fledged dynasty searching for a legendary third straight crown. Before a wild postseason tips off, let’s look back on what we’ve learned from a basketball season like no other. 

Star power is everything, even at the high school level. 

Coming off a strong second-place region finish in 2019-20, Chane Brown was looking to take that next step in year two at Hilton Head High. The Seahawks were bringing back a solid batch of athletes, including a reliable inside finisher and rebounder in Sam Summa, an explosive athlete in Jaylen Sneed, an improving point guard in Alex Smith, and a dangerous shooter in Adam Clark.

The defense was looking to be strong once again, but they were lacking that true superstar and playmaker who could score at will and elevate the team around him. In this level and area, that has been something hard to find in years past. Gaston Moore and Summa led a solid attack last year, but the consistency just wasn’t there enough to grab the top spot in Region 7-4A.

But as the fall of 2020 approached, Chane Brown landed his wish. A Lowco boys was coming home. A transfer from Archbishop Moeller in Cincinnati, Will McCracken brought his elite athleticism, sensational scoring ability, and outstanding leadership back to the island. In just a span of a few months, he shattered the Seahawk record books. His dominant skillset ignited Hilton Head’s offense, transforming an inconsistent attack last year into a powerhouse that can bite opponents from anywhere on the court.

If he’s not carrying the squad on his back like in his record-breaking 43-point outburst against Lucy Beckham, his presence draws attention and opens up opportunities for Summa, Sneed, or Clark to get good looks at the rim or from behind the three-point line. The UNCW commit took the Seahawk hoops program to unforeseen levels in recent history, going a perfect 9-0 in region play and finishing at the top for the first time since 2005.

In basketball, seemingly more than any other sport, acquiring that bonafide star is the factor that makes the difference between a solid squad and a championship contender. Will McCracken took Hilton Head from a potential challenger to the clear 7-4A frontrunner, and without the ability and leadership that the senior brings to the table, they wouldn’t be standing where they are right now.

Girls’ basketball talent in the Lowco is here to stay.

If one were to make a list of the most valuable girls basketball players in the LowCo hoops scene, Tacoya Heyward, Mike’Ala Washington, Devon Yarde, Molly Smith, and Lynda Young would certainly be near the top. And four out of five are freshmen.

After Bluffton’s Tatyana Aiken graduated last year, it was up to Heyward to take the knowledge she learned from her eighth-grade year and take over the leading role of her Bobcat squad. Not only did she dazzle with her breakneck speed and beautiful finishes at the rim, but “Coya” also led her team to an unbelievable perfect 9-0 record in region 7-4A en route to the top region tournament seed.

On the island, Young has been the Seahawks’ reliable outlet, pulling down rebound after rebound and sinking some clutch shots including a game-winner against James Island as time expired. Washington, along with fellow sophomore teammate Tahleea Heyward, has excelled all over the court for Beaufort Academy. Washington can knock down threes and rack up steals on defense. She just rewrote her school’s record books on Friday, dropping an incredible 34 in one game. Heyward can burn past you to the rim and score past even the toughest local SCISA defenders.

Then there’s the dynamic duo at Hilton Head Christian Academy. Smith and Yarde have been tremendous, showing amazing growth over their freshman season. The two guards have turned into a complete package on offense and defense, swiping away loose balls, making spectacular passes, and swishing some tough shots from all across the court.

But that’s just the start of this incredible young cadre of local stars. Morgan Scott has put together a breakout year for the May River Sharks, dominating in the post and learning under veteran Jordan Bigham to produce a reliable output every night, catapulting May River to second place in the region. Katie Rodney has emerged as a go-to player for Bluffton, making threes when her name is called upon, finding open teammates, and playing tough, lockdown defense.

Thanks to some remarkable mentors like H2BBall’s Rob Benson and an unbeatable lineup of local coaches, the girls’ basketball scene has become an all-star cast from top to bottom. We can’t wait to see the development of these tremendous athletes in the years to come, and there’s certainly lots more on the way coming up through the pipeline. 

The COVID-19 pandemic tested teams like never before. 

The toughest opponent many teams may face this year is the one that can’t be seen. Just like in football season, we’ve seen games postponed, canceled, and altered like never before. Beaufort Academy’s squads were sidelined for a full month due to COVID exposure, and multiple programs ended their seasons early due to issues with the virus.

The champions of this basketball season will be the ones that can rise to the challenge of not just delivering on the court, but more importantly staying as safe as possible off it. Unfortunately, it just takes one infection to spread across a team and end their season. From this point forward, any COVID shutdown will knock the squad out of postseason contention, so it cannot be more important for players, coaches, and families to do everything they can to protect each other from that nightmare scenario.

The pandemic has also played a large role in teams’ performances so far this year. It’s taken some time after coming back for teams to get to that optimal level that they may have found before their pause. Beaufort Academy struggled on the road at Hilton Head Prep, but found their groove afterward, taking down the Dolphins by 20 at home.

We’ve seen examples of post-pause rust across the levels of hoops, and it will continue to play a factor as we head into the postseason. It may not be a normal year, but the champions this season will have overcome both elite competition and the challenges of the pandemic, and thus will certainly be remembered for years to come. 

SCISA boys basketball is in great hands.

Over the second half of the season, we’ve been treated to a captivating show put on by some terrific young athletes. JJ Hayes may have been the main attraction this past year at Hilton Head Prep, but Kane Eanes developed himself this year to become a tremendous offensive option to complement the junior star.

A strong candidate for the most improved player of the season, Eanes grew his game to more than just a spot-up shooter. His drive to the hoop is nearly unstoppable, and he knows how and where to contribute to a spectacular motion-offense attack. When JJ leaves the island in two years, we could be looking at a special senior year for Eanes.

On the other end of the island, Hilton Head Christian Academy’s fans have been raving about freshman Isaiah Anderson. After a standout football season, the young Eagle delivered a breakout game last week, dominating on the defensive end and throwing down a flurry of majestic dunks on offense. Anderson’s remarkable explosiveness and strong frame will wreak havoc on SCISA opponents on the football field and the basketball court for years to come.

And the player I may be most excited about is already on a tear — as an eighth-grader. Colleton Prep’s Melvin Teal Jr. has been a sensation on the court, vacuuming up rebounds and racking up the points with his impressive finishing ability. The double-double machine carried his War Hawks to victory over a strong John Paul II squad and casually put up 20 this past week against a strong Hilton Head Prep squad after playing the previous night. He’s already amassed several tools in his box to make game-changing plays on both ends, and he’ll get even stronger in his four years to come in the Lowco. With his incredible prowess lighting up the box score at such a young age, he’s already on track to become a War Hawk legend.

The region tournament is a genius idea, and it should be a permanent fixture.

It was a last-minute fix to remedy a season going off the rails, but the introduction of a region tournament has already created some amazing memories in the Lowco. The end-of-season event gives every team something to look forward to and presents each side with one final chance at glory.

Although some would say that a single-elimination knockout tourney isn’t the best way of crowning a region champion, whoever comes out on top will be full of confidence and momentum going into the state tournament, and will have already shown that they can handle a playoff environment.

And just one day in, it has already written a magical story. Colleton County, a team that failed to win a single game in the regular season and was coming back from a multi-week pause, shocked us all by vanquishing a strong May River side on the strength of some tremendous shooting.

After this group had to deal with the tragic loss of their former teammate, they rallied together to produce an incredible feel-good story. Even though I’m a Seahawk fan, I would gladly trade our chance at a region title to see Cinderella wear the glass slipper all the way to an unimaginable playoff berth.

Now that we’ve already seen some amazing storylines and unforgettable action in just the first day, I don’t know how we ever get rid of it. Rewarding the regular-season champ with a playoff bid and giving everyone one last opportunity with all the drama that a tournament brings is the perfect segue to the state playoffs.

It’s been a basketball season that we’ll never forget, and I cannot wait to see our LowCo teams bring it in the postseason. With three teams looking like legit title contenders and with several more still with a chance at playoff glory, the best may very well be yet to come.

Buckle up. For the love of all things buckets, bring on the #FebruaryFrenzy. 

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