It’s a new beginning for Liberty County boys’ basketball.
Levon Grant has assumed the position of head coach after Julian Stokes resigned in March after six seasons that included a state championship with the trio of Davion Mitchell, Richard LeCounte III, and Will Richardson.
Grant was hired back in April, coming from Rome High School.
He has been a head coach for 15 years from ranging from South Georgia to Middle Georgia high school programs.
“This is my seventeenth year in education and fifteenth as a head basketball coach,” Grant said about his history. “I’ve been everywhere from Macon to Irwin County to Colquitt County and I just came here from Rome for the last four years. So now I’m down here at Liberty.”
As the 2021 season approaches, Grant wasted no time building camaraderie with his team and creating opportunities for his players to form bonds with each other while adopting key principles.
“I’m excited about building this program from the bottom to the top,” Grant said. “I was hired on April 1. We started basketball and building relationships on April 2. So, I’ve been here since, building relationships in the community, with our kids and their parents. We’re getting everything set up the way we want it. Year one is all about laying the foundation down of what we want. Three things we look for and build our program on is mentality, unity, and work ethic. If you do those three things you won’t lose, you can’t lose. We pride ourselves on those three things. We’ve been working hard since April 2 on building the program the right way.”
The Panthers had a shortened 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only playing 12 total games, finishing with a 3-9 record.
“I know they were a little short last year,” Grant said about his new team’s 2020 season. “COVID hit everybody here in the United States, not just here in Hinesville. Everybody’s season was kind of cut short and affected in some way, shape, form, or fashion. Here at Liberty, they didn’t play as many games as they usually play.”
Only two starters will be returning for the Panthers this season.
“There’s only two guys that are returning from last year’s team that played a lot on varsity,” Grant said about the youngness of his team. “That’s Corey Love and Jeremiah Smoke. The rest of the guys that we have in the program have never played in the varsity game or didn’t play much varsity at all so it’s very minimal experience. It was all about getting here on April 2 and getting right to work. We’ve been in here getting skill work, building IQ, and introducing them to a new style of basketball and a new way of how we want things done. Coach Stokes was a tremendous coach for a few years here. Won a state championship with Davion Mitchell and those guys. But I’m coming in bringing a wealth of new knowledge to the game for these young men and the community. With COVID cutting everything short last year, we had to hit the ground running. We’ve done a lot since April 2 to prepare ourselves for our opener game.”
Senior guard Corey Love Jr. averaged 13.5 points per game while backcourt mate senior Jeremiah Smoke put up 13.2.
“Corey Love is our senior point guard,” Grant said about his player. “He’s coming off an ACL injury last year. But he’s fully healed now. He’s back and explosive more than he ever has been. He led the team in scoring last year and was an all-region player. We look for him to continue to be an all-region player. He’s had a great offseason in training and getting prepared. He’s definitely our best player. Another guy who we look for really big things from this year is Jeremiah Smoke. He’s a fantastic three-point shooter. I had a guy when I was at Irwin that shot the ball well and set a school record with 100 threes in the offense that we ran for him. We look for Jeremiah Smoke to do some of those same things. He’ll be a real explosive scorer from the outside and do a lot of things for us.”
Senior forward David Black will serve as a defensive stopper and the team captain, leading in a fellow senior forward Mekhi Ellis, who transferred to Liberty from Trinity Christian School in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
“David Black will represent us as our team captain,” Grant said. “Real smart kid with a 3.8 GPA. He’s defense and rebounding. He’s about 6 foot 4. He’ll do some really strong things for us on the defensive end of the floor. Mekhi Ellis is a guy who transferred in here from Trinity Christian School up in North Carolina. He’s about 6 foot 4 and plays outside and inside. He can do it all. We’re looking for some really big things out of him. He’s a really explosive player. We’re looking for him to give us a lot on both ends of the floor.”
Grant just simply wants his team to play with grit and eliminate mistakes to put them in a position to win this season.
“Defense is how we get it done,” Grant said about his team’s playstyle. “We spend a tremendous amount of time learning the in, outs, ups, downs of the defensive side of the ball to make sure we’re solid there because we believe that if you play really good defense and don’t turn the ball over, that alone will keep you in ball games. It’ll send it down to the fourth quarter and you’ll have an opportunity to win every ball game if you just play outstanding defense and don’t turn the ball over. We’re not even talking about offensively and putting up points. We’re just talking about the fundamentals of the game. Those are two things I believe strongly in. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Though Grant knows that his team isn’t ready to compete for a state championship just set, he is in it for the long haul to bring Panther basketball back to the glory that they had a half decade ago.
And now, he is already setting the framework for becoming champions once again.
“I really feel strong about the team that we have here and the things that we laid down here in the first year,” Grant said. “Like I said, Coach Stokes did a great job here and we just kind of want to pick up where those guys set the tone by winning a state title. We know we’re not there yet but we’re putting down everything in the makings of winning one. We feel like we’ve done a good job of inviting all of our young kids over this summer and making sure that they were skilled and building those relationships with them from third grade all the way through twelfth grade. Our feeder program sets up 6-12, but we’ve reached out to third grade. So now it’s 3-12. The foundation of laying another championship down in the future is already been laid. Our expectations for this year don’t change. We want the gold and the silver trophy. You want your standard to be as high as possible even though you know there’s going to be room for growth, ups and downs, peaks, and valleys throughout the season. We feel like we’re building the right mentality, unity, and work ethic in the kids to be able to get the job done here this year as far as setting our goals. We want to make the state playoffs and be one of the top four teams in our region to go to the state playoffs. Those are reachable, attainable goals for this year.”
The Panther’s first game will come when they face crosstown rival Bradwell Institute on Saturday, Nov. 20.
The Liberty County Lady Panthers basketball team will be on prowl to improve on their playoff appearance in the 2020 season.
A season ago, they went 7-6 before heading to the playoffs and faltering to Jackson 47-45 in the first round of the GHSA 3A playoffs in a shortened season.
With Kimberly Battle at the coaching helm, she will look to have different leadership on the court with Tynia Freeman graduating out after averaging 7.1 points and 9.7 rebounds in her senior year.
The Lady Panthers will have six seniors out of 12 players this season.
They will play their first game when they go to their crosstown rivals, Bradwell Institute on Saturday, Nov. 20.