Losing your top three players to graduation in the game of basketball is a tough obstacle to overcome for most teams. Losing your head coach, one that has spent the past the past 14 years running the program, is a hurdle most teams wouldn’t know how to clear.
For the Newton Rams, however, any doubts of the program hitting a rough patch were quickly dispatched with the hiring of Charlemagne Gibbons to replace Rick Rasmussen and the sudden addition of the state’s leading scorer, Caleb Byrd.
With state championship winning experience from Gibbons, coupled with the addition of Byrd, the expectations surrounding the Rams, much like they have for the past decade plus, are high entering the season.
“Our goal is to be the last team standing at the end of the season,” Gibbons said. “On paper for us this year, some people would say (Newton) lost a lot of guys. With the seniors that we have mixed with our youth, my goal is to win a state championship.”
The Rams’ realistic chances of making Gibbons’ goal a reality were boosted with the addition of Byrd, who has spent the past two seasons starring for Rome High School. A Conyers native, Byrd recently committed to Georgia Southern and is expected to give the Rams instant offense this season.
“Coming into a new job, you want to know that you’re able to put some points up on the board,” Gibbons said. “Having (Byrd), who led the state in scoring last year, is definitely an advantage. Having him is a huge bonus for our program all the way around.”
After graduating the likes of Tre Clark, Armani Harris and Tyrease Brown, who accounted for 77 percent of Newton’s points scored last season, the addition of Byrd proves key for Gibbons and the Rams.
Gibbons, however, knows that in order to win games, he will need production from other players. That list includes the likes of senior guard Shawn Smith, who averaged 8.5 points as a junior last season.
Both Smith and Doug Moore, who served as a spark plug at times for the Rams last season, both as a starter and contributor off the bench and Max Calloway, return as the only three players with valuable minutes from last year’s roster.
With the Rams’ inexperience outside of Byrd, Smith, Moore and Calloway, Gibbons plans to turn to a young crop of talent this season that he’s hoping can learn on the job and give his team enough firepower to win games.
Both junior Jordan Marshall and sophomore TJ Clark spent time playing with the varsity squad over the summer with Gibbons, as well as several talented freshmen.
“Qua Brown was really good in middle school and he has a chance,” Gibbons said. “Stephon Castle is the same way. Another kid is Jakai Newton. He’s been out with a foot injury, but as he gets healthy, he will be another guy at the varsity level for us.
“I think we have a great mix of youth and senior guys. just look forward to seeing these guys play. It’s going to be exciting to watch them play and watch them grow over the season.”
While the Rams won’t possess a ton of size this season, Gibbons plans to make up for it with speed, something his team has a lot of.
“We have guys that can really run,” Gibbons said. “We have a lot of skill guys that can dribble, pass and shoot. We’re going to try and keep as many of those guys on the floor as we can and hopefully we can negate other team’s size with them trying to match up with what we’re trying to do with pace. If we can rebound the basketball, we’re going to be able to score. That’s going to be a key for us.”
The Rams will begin the season ranked No. 9 in Class AAAAAAA. After finishing third in Region 8 last season, the Rams will once again look up at Grayson, who currently occupies the state’s No. 1 ranking.
Knowing the tough road that lies ahead, Gibbons made sure to stack his non-region schedule with talented teams in order to best prepare them for the stretch run.
“Our schedule is tough,” Gibbons said. “We’re going to play some of the best teams in the state over the past few years. I don’t think there are any cupcakes on our schedule and that’s what you want.”
The Rams will open the season against three Top 10 teams in Fayette County, Wheeler and Dutchtown before the start of region play on Dec. 6 at home against South Gwinnett.
“These guys have done the work up until this point, so I’ll be excited for the community and our school to see the kind of work that our guys have been doing behind the scenes,” Gibbons said.