Following two consecutive seasons ending with elimination in the quarter finals of the GHSA AAAAAAA State Basketball Championship, North Gwinnett High School’s varsity boys are coming back with a vengeance.
Boasting an overall record of 13-3 for the season and a 2-0 record for region games so far, the Bulldogs are well on their way to qualifying for the state playoffs, which will begin Feb. 22.
The North Gwinnett Voice sat in on one of the team’s practices to get an idea of what the players and coach alike are doing to turn their ambition of victory into reality.
Head coach Matt Garner wasted no time mincing words, telling the North Gwinnett Voice, “The aspiration is the state championship, we’re not hiding from that.” He confidently went on to say, “I feel like we’re talented enough and experienced enough that that needs to be our goal, and we’re not dancing around that. That is our goal.”
Garner reflected that passion and laser focus during the training session, calling out instructions to his players, who immediately fell into line.
Speaking about his coaching philosophy, Garner said, “It’s got to be (the players) that lead the way. My job is to try and help them find their way as leaders … I tell the kids all the time, ‘If this squad is led by me, we’ll be mediocre. If it’s led by you guys, then we’ll hit our max potential.’”
This coaching style certainly seems to have inspired Garner’s players, particularly senior captains RJ Godfrey and Thomas Allard. Both young men have been on the varsity team since their sophomore years, and Garner highlighted them as the team’s top leadership.
“He likes to put it on us as players,” Allard said of Garner. “He’ll push us in the right spots in the right areas at the right times, but then also give us that freedom for us to figure it out ourselves.”
This approach quickly became evident on the court as the players seemed to instinctively hold each other accountable for their performance in drills. The team shared an obvious camaraderie, laughing, high-fiving and even applauding particular displays of excellence, but they also didn’t hesitate to acknowledge if a teammate could do better. The intent was never to ridicule or belittle, but rather to inspire improvement, and all while Garner observed in relative silence.
Even the character of the players was self-regulated with a fraternal discipline. Anyone lagging behind to line up for a drill received a motivational word or gesture from his teammates, and Godfrey regularly reminded his fellow players to mind their language, particularly since the practice was being held at North Gwinnett Church.
Both Godrfey and Allard were members of the varsity basketball team during the past two seasons, which ended for the Bulldogs in the Elite Eight round of the playoffs. They are resolved in the belief that this is their year.
“You’re more driven,” Godfrey said about the defeat last season. “When we lost the Elite Eight, after on the bus ride home … that feeling after stays with you. That’s like your fuel.”
Allard added, “We want to go out on top, have that high and definitely not go out on such a low emotional feeling.”
Echoing Garner’s confidence, Godfrey also said, “I think this year, we have more talent. I think our work ethic changed from the years prior. I’m pretty confident about this year.”
Garner employs a fairly distinctive approach to coaching high school basketball, but the emphasis on personal responsibility and teaching the athletes to be the true leaders has clearly paid dividends with his two leading players as well as the team as a whole. His inspiration and trust has galvanized the team to a level of self-discipline that has been integral to their success and their lofty goal of achieving the state title.
The Bulldogs’ next game will be an at-home region matchup against Peachtree Ridge at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21.