Through 26 games this season, Horizon Christian Academy boys basketball coach Damon Taylor had not given his team any sort of motto or coaching axiom for motivation. But just before the Warriors’ chance at a second straight state title seemed like a good time for one.
Taylor made it simple – “No doubt.” No doubting Taylor or each other or the game plan.
And Horizon left no doubt after a 62-47 victory against Alleluia Community School on Saturday at Albany State University West Campus.
Crisp on offense, led by point guard Alex Dahlberg’s 20 points, and disciplined on defense, the Warriors won their second straight GICAA Division I-A state championship and fourth overall. Andrew Leonard added 19 points, while Daniel Durnwald scored 15.
“Those kids played lights out,” Taylor said. “They never doubted each other. They played in sync, whether it was defense, offense, they talked. It was great.”
Horizon could have been convinced it had plenty of reasons for doubt. This season had not been like the charmed one of a year ago, when the Warriors went undefeated in Taylor’s debut in charge.
To recalibrate the team’s expectations, Taylor purposely toughened the early portion of Horizon’s schedule, including back-to-back games against Mt. Bethel and Creekside Christian, the two teams who played for this year’s Division II state championship. Horizon lost both.
The Warriors also found a worthy region challenger in Shiloh Hills Christian. The teams split during the regular season before meeting again in the region championship game, which Shiloh won, 49-47. The loss gave Horizon a No. 2 seed in the state playoffs with the potential to need victories against two No. 1 seeds to reach the state championship again.
“The experience was good,” Taylor said, “because our kids got to learn, hey listen, we’re not that team. We have to play really good basketball. So it was just a different experience.”
Horizon managed that challenge, defeating Nathanael Greene (87-52), Fullington Academy (51-43) and Heritage Christian (55-30) to earn the state title berth.
But Taylor was most concerned after his team watched Alleluia defeat Shiloh in the state semifinals.
“I thought my kids were going to say, ‘Oh wow,’ because the Shiloh kids were telling our kids, man, there’s no way you’re going to beat Alleluia, because we beat ya’ll,” Taylor said.
Instead, after a shaky start for both teams, Horizon found its rhythm, took an early lead and never relinquished it.
Dahlberg and Durnwald hit some early 3s to get the Warriors started, and the combo were in control the rest of the game.
Alleluia seemed to put its defensive focus on Durnwald, who came alive during the team’s state playoff run. Even so, Durnwald hit four 3-pointers.
“He played phenomenal through the playoffs,” Taylor said. “When the playoffs started, he just turned into a different ballplayer.”
Dahlberg found the right balance of facilitating Horizon’s offense through Durnwald and Leonard while taking advantage of his own opportunities, hitting a few 3s but also driving aggressively to the basket.
“He had to take on a different role,” Taylor said. “(Alleluia) was obviously going to take those guys out, so he had to score the basketball.”
Horizon’s defensive challenge was Alleluia star Ben Dresser, a sharpshooter-type who scored 59 points with 10 3-pointers in one game during the regular season.
Taylor watched Shiloh play man defense against Dressed in the state semifinals to no avail. He opted to stick with Horizon’s 2-3 zone defense but extend it out further, forcing Dressed into tougher shots.
“Our gameplan was basically to make somebody else beat us,” Taylor said.
After the long drive back from Albany, the Warriors celebrated in Cumming at an Outback Steakhouse.
But even before then, Taylor was already plotting how Horizon could make it three in a row.
“What’s crazy is not even before we left the parking lot is I’m thinking of the kids next year,” Taylor said. “My assistant coach and I were already talking about so-and-so, and so-and-so; we hadn’t even left the parking lot from the championship game yet. We’re already in that mode of thinking of the kids behind us and how can we put the pieces together.”