JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — With high schools shutdown for the immediate future, this was one of the last sports celebrations in the state.
Chattahoochee boys basketball solidified itself as the top Class 6A basketball team in the state March 7 by winning the program’s first state title. But that fact had not quite set in for head coach Chris Short after the final buzzer sounded with the Cougars celebrating a 69-66 overtime win over Lanier.
That changed the following week when the team gathered to view proposals for their championship ring.
“When you start seeing the hardware, that signaled we had reached that ultimate goal,” Short said. “It definitely sunk in then.”
Hooch’s trip to the state finals had its foundation a year before after the team lost its contest with Tri-Cities in the second round of the 2018-19 state tournament.
“We thought we could have made a deeper playoff run last year,” Short said. “Coming into this year, our goal was to focus in on that game and not feel that pain again.”
To avoid reliving that disappointment would mean earning a state title, a task easier said than done.
“It is everyone’s goal to win a state championship, and people always joke that you might have a chance this year,” Short said. “When we sat down as a team it was something we wanted to accomplish, but we also talked about all the things that would help us get there — being coachable, consistency, going 1-0. Privately, I felt like we had the pieces to do it, it was just a matter of if we could come together as a team and be on the same page.”
Chattahoochee certainly had the talent from the get-go. Senior and Rice commit Cameron Sheffield and junior guard AJ White lit up scoreboards throughout the season, long-distance threat Franklin Bailey and other role players performed well in their duties. Senior center David McDaniel made his name known with a fantastic second half to the season.
Those ingredients make for a winning team, but perhaps it was the players’ leadership abilities that allowed a successful team to become championship caliber.
“If leadership is constantly coming from adults, some is taken and some is not,” Short said. “When leadership comes from peers, its just that much more impactful. That group of players really managed the locker room, managed the effort and managed our coachability. Our captains and seniors led us. I knew if we were going to reach our goals, it would be because of that, and I feel it really did play a role for us.”
In perhaps two of the most vital moments of the season — the Region 7-AAAAAA finals and state championship game — the management among Hooch’s captains drove the team to victory, Short said.
The Cougars trailed the defending region champs by 10 points entering the final period of the region title game, and frustration ran deep along the Hooch bench when Sheffield asked his coach to call a timeout.
“We had a few things we wanted to cover defensively, but we gave Cameron the huddle and he took over,” Short said. “His message and calmness with the team allowed them to let go of that frustration. AJ also suggest flipping something around with our 1-3-1, we switched it up and it worked. Credit to those kids to take over the huddle and provide that direction.”
Sheffield also sparked the team late in the fourth quarter of the state finals.
“Cameron said we’ve got this, we’ve been in this situation before and we have to stay focused,” Short said. “In overtime, Cameron really took over and showed he’s a senior and showed why he’s a D1 commit.”
The Cougars’ schedule in the always competitive Region 7-AAAAAA and what Short called the program’s most difficult non-region slate in program history was also a boon in tight contests. That included a thrilling finish to earn a trip to the second round of the playoffs.
Tied 66-66 with Alexander in the first round of the state tournament, Sheffield dished the ball to Bailey who lined up for a corner three just before the final buzzer.
“He nailed it,” Short said.
The Cougars continued to march, downing Heritage and Sequoyah to earn the program’s first trip to the semifinals. In that game, their quest for a state title went full circle as they downed Tri-Cities, the team responsible for ending the Cougars’ 2018-19 season.
A week later, the team lifted the state title trophy.
“It’s a great feeling to see the kids walk away with what they wanted to accomplish,” Short said. “I’ve seen too many tears in the locker room in region tournaments and the state playoffs, and as a coach, you hate it. I’m happy for them, I’m happy to have coached them. They have a special place in my heart without the championship, but the championship just makes it all that more special.”