For the first time in seven years, the St. James Coastal Crew Rebels will field three teams, instead of their usual two, for the AAU national tournament, which starts July 23 in Orlando, Fla.
Rebels founder and 15U head coach Ernie Walthour said he planned to take the 16U and 17U Rebels and then decided he would add the 15U squad to the mix due to its talent and the chance players will be seen by Division I scouts and coaches.
“(The 15U Rebels) weren’t supposed to be going to nationals, but I felt like it was in their best interest to go because of all of the college coaches that are going to be down there,” he said. “It’s primarily a 16U tournament, but we will be playing up an age bracket.”
Walthour said he anticipates approximately 700 teams will play in the national tournament and that his 15U squad is up for the challenge.
“All these guys have been playing together since February and have been to a lot of tournaments and camps,” he said. “The players have developed chemistry and play as a team. We’ve put all the pieces in place and we are set to go to nationals based on what we’ve done earlier this year.”
Walthour said his team will be put to the test facing elite AAU teams such as the Georgia Stars and St. Louis Eagles. His players said they are ready.
“I’m the captain and I feel the other players look up to me. I’m going to make sure they do the right thing,” Jamorris Hill, 15, said.
Hill, a Bradwell Institute student, has played for the Rebels for two years and attended the national tournament last season with the 17U Rebels squad. He hopes to catch the eyes of University of Florida scouts.
“It’s a great opportunity to go down there and be seen by the college coaches,” Hill said. “School comes first, but I’m working hard and doing my best.”
First Presbyterian Christian Academy’s Domonique Kirkley, 15, said it’s his first trip to the national tournament as a player for the Rebels. The point guard said the Rebels are ready to compete against the older teams, and he plans to be a big contributor on the floor.
“I bring speed, so our offense can be explosive,” he said.
It’s also Ahman Muhammad’s first trip to nationals as a new member of the Rebels. The Richmond Hill center, who wants to play for Ohio State some day, said it’s going to be a great experience. He, too, brings something to the table for the Rebels.
“I help out with a lot of rebounds and playing down low,” he said.
Zaquavian Smith, 16, of Statesboro High, is another first-year Rebel. The shooting guard said he would like to play for Georgia Tech and is known for his ability to dunk the ball.
“I play good defense and I hustle, but I dominate the offense most of the time,” he said after slamming the ball through the net at practice.
Coach Mike Brown said his 17U squad has just as good of a chance to place well as the other teams.
“(We have a chance to win) as long as we play together and everything gels,” he said. “We’ve been conditioning and trying to stay fit. We played in a couple of tournaments and we’ve been in championship games for a couple of tournaments. ... When we have the team together, we’ve been able to do the things we need to do.”
Brown said he is not going to concentrate on who his potential opponents might be and instead wants to prepare his players to face every possible scenario they may see on the hardcourt.
“We have more of a rebound defensive game,” he said, adding that if the defense does things right, the offense will take care of itself.
The three squads will spend eight days in Orlando and Walthour said getting everything organized was a monstrous task.
“We got a lot of support from the community, and our Summer Slam event helped us to fund some of this. Sponsors like M&M Motors and Melissa Ray Carter of State Farm and Osteen and Osteen Law Firm helped by raising funds, and some of the parents have raised funds for food. We really want to say thank you for helping us make our seventh national tournament in a row,” he said.