Area middle schools have wrapped up their basketball seasons, but as one door closes another is swinging wide open. The AAU basketball season is about to begin.
Locally, the St. James Coastal Crew Rebels will kick into high gear starting with tryouts for the 14U teams starting at noon tomorrow at the St. James Sports Center.
"The middle school kids normally finish earlier so we start their league and tryouts roughly a month before the high school students," Rebels’ founder Ernie Walthour said. "And by the time the high school teams come off the court, we’ll have our 14U and 13U teams in place and ready for tournaments, which start in March."
He said Saturday’s open tryouts will allow everyone a chance to compete for spots on the 14U squad. There is no tryout fee and players have at least two weeks to earn a spot on the final roster. The players will immediately begin to prepare for tournaments in North Augusta and Atlanta.
Walthour said he is proud of how the Rebels have grown and flourished the past few years. He didn’t play basketball in school, but said he developed his coaching skills over the years, dating back to his position as an assistant at the Liberty County Recreation Department. He started coaching for the rec league and later coached at Fort Stewart.
"I worked with a ton of high school coaches specifically at Bradwell like Phil Price," Walthour said. "So my experience came from working with these coaches and learning the game more."
The Rebels originally had only one team. They have grown to roughly five boys squads.
"It means a lot to me personally because I know we put in a lot of hours and we do a lot of things to try and build the program and it’s starting to bear a lot of fruit on the tree," Walthour said. "Seeing a lot of these kids going off to play in college and getting the calls from GSU, Jacksonville and coaches from Clemson."
Walthour said coaches have been running him down with calls and asking about the Rebels’ tournament schedule for this season.
"Most of these coaches got to see them at nationals in Orlando last season," he said. "In fact, most didn’t even know who these kids were until we went to Orlando and played some tournaments there and a few at Georgia Tech over the last few years."
The coach said the 17U and 16U teams have a tough schedule this season. First they’ll be in North Carolina for a tournament. Then they play in a tournament hosted by the University of Tennessee and are scheduled for another at Clemson.
"And we will be in Orlando twice at the Easter classic as well as the nationals, so we have a big schedule," Walthour said.
This year the coach said he is especially excited about finally being able to organize tryouts for the Lady Rebels. They’d like to establish two teams.
Walthour said Mike Brown, who has coached the boys for about six years, will manage and coach the girls.
"That helps me a lot because I know what Mike can do and how good he has been for us on the boys side," Walthour said. "I know I have somebody strong handling the girls program and I can focus on the boys’ side. It was always something we thought about doing, but we needed to get more people involved because putting together teams for the AAU involves a lot more work than just throwing the ball out on the court. It takes transportation, planning and coordinating schedules, coaching staff and many hours."
Walthour said he decided to start the girls program after receiving several requests from players. He said his niece, Metra Walthour, who was once a Liberty Panther and now plays for Georgia Tech, influenced his decision.
"That kind of pushed me more to get girls to be able to follow the road to where she is at," he said. "The girls see how we prepare (the boys) to travel and how the boys get media attention and exposure."
He asked Brown and assistant coach Rosby Fraiser to set a goal and help the girls qualify for this year’s national tournament. He said that will ensure they receive the attention of most of the women’s college coaches who normally attend the event.
"Ernie and I have talked about this for a year and this year is the first year we are able to do it," Brown said. "Our plan is to get as many girls into the program as we can possible get in."
Brown said it’s an opportunity for the girls so they can continue to learn and improve their skills before they go back to school. The Rebels are implementing a system so girls can develop as team players and as individuals, he said.
"I think this will improve the girls’ game tremendously. It’s going to allow them to work on their basic skills just by the mere fact that they’ll be playing up against high caliber, quality players. They’ll learn from us and each other," Brown said. "Also, it will give them an opportunity to be exposed to quality teams across the nation and hopefully inspire them to want to be just like those teams and push them to work hard toward those goals."
The coaches hope to carry 12 players per roster per squad.
Mike Brown played basketball in high school and later at Georgia Southern College, before it was GSU. Later he played for the All-Army basketball team.
He said he learned a valuable lesson he hopes to pass along to the girls.
"As a young player, I wasn’t prepared overall to go to college," he said. "That is why we stress academics now because it’s so important. I learned the lesson the hard way. Later on, I got my degree, but I had to learn the hard way and that can set you back ... But you learn from your mistakes and if you do learn from your mistakes you are on the right road."
Brown has coached for more than 20 years but said he’ll make some adjustments to his style now that he’s working with female athletes.
"The biggest difference is I had to change some of the things I do and where I do them at," he said. "Being they are girls, I can’t be everywhere they are so I get the girls when they come out on the floor. When they are out on the floor, then it’s all basketball."
The Lady Rebels have tryouts from 6-8 p.m. March 16.