The 2013-14 season got off to a bit of rocky start for the Pinecrest boys basketball team, as the Paladins dropped each of their first six games—losing by more than 10 points four times in that span. However, given the circumstances, this rough patch didn’t warrant much concern.
Pinecrest had just graduated four seniors, lost two starters to short-term injuries and faced a grueling schedule, including contests against Dawson County (7-1), Riverside Military Academy (5-2), Fellowship Christian (6-3) and Blessed Trinity (8-3). Growing pains were not only anticipated by head coach Jay Lynch, but were necessary in the grand scheme of things.
So a youthful, inexperienced roster took the court in November, struggling frequently, but, more importantly, gaining invaluable experience that can’t be replicated in practice or scrimmages.
"These guys don’t learn until they get out there," said Lynch, who is in his second year as the varsity boys head coach. "Sure, we’ve faced a lot of early adversity, but practice and middle school games are nothing like a varsity game – the scenarios, the defenses they go up against, the pace.
"It’s been a process, but we’re moving forward. I’m proud of the guys so far."
Several newcomers have taken advantage of this situation, including freshmen Sean Flanigan and Ryan McCarthy.
Flanigan and McCarthy, now the team’s second leading scorer and third leading rebounder, respectively, have received ample minutes thus far — allowing them to adjust from middle school to the speed and toughness of varsity competition. No easy task.
Flanigan scored 17 and 16 points in his first two regular season games, earning himself a prominent role on the team that figures to only grow in the next four years.
On Nov. 22, McCarthy racked up eight points and 10 boards in a 72-55 defeat to Dawson, showing flashes of dominance in the paint.
While those impressive performances — among others — occurred in losing efforts, the development was noticeable.
"We’re playing a lot of new guys, a lot of young guys, and that can make it tough," Lynch said, "but I think we’re rounding into shape, though it is hard overcoming these obstacles. It takes a little more patience, that’s for sure."
While the Paladins have leaned heavily on several of their freshmen and sophomores, their next wave of leaders is starting to come together. Senior Michael Bruckner and juniors Adam Guard and Nick Palmer have begun to set the tone in practice, embracing the leadership roles that were left vacant by those who graduated last spring.
Bruckner, the team’s tallest player at 6-foot- 3, has hauled in 7.8 rebounds per game, averaging 10 boards in Pinecrest’s three victories. Palmer is scoring 12.7 points per game and averaging 18 points in his last three games.
"We had some really good seniors last year who were leaders for us, and so you notice their absence," Lynch said. "Now the juniors and seniors of this year have the chance to take over. They’re starting to do that now, and that’s important for us."
Between the adjustments of its newcomers and the maturation of the veterans, the progress has begun to materialize. The deficits are decreasing, and the wins are starting to pile up. Heading into Friday’s match-up against Fellowship Christian, the Paladins have won three of their last five games, including one over a talented Athens Christian squad.
And despite its overall record, Pinecrest is currently 2-1 in Region 8-A play. This bodes well for the team’s ultimate goal: a region championship.
Lynch believes Pinecrest can finish the regular season as high as second in the region, and doesn’t think they’ll fall below third. Last year, they finished third with a 5-6 record and managed to advance to the region finals.
If the Paladins can build on their recent success, there’s good reason to believe they can finish on top in 2013-14.
"I want to be dangerous when it becomes time for the tournament," Lynch said. "I told our guys, ‘When we get to the region tournament, the freshmen should be like sophomores; the sophomores should be like juniors; the juniors should be like seniors; and the seniors should be like college freshmen.’
"When we get to that point, we should be tough to play against."