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Panthers ready to defend state basketball title
Members of last season's state champion Liberty County Panther basketball team ride in a parade through downtown Hinesville. - photo by File photo

The Liberty County boys basketball team won the school’s first state championship in any major sport last year, when Julian Stokes led the team to an upset victory over Jonesboro.

Jonesboro was going for a third straight state title in the AAAA finals. Stokes was in his first season as head coach.

With a new season comes a new classification and region, and the Panthers are ready to take the court as winter starts to creep in.

The Panthers have moved down to the AAA but will still play against some of the tougher teams in the state.

Stokes talked about the competition getting even better for his team this year.

"I actually think moving down a class is a good thing for us," he explained. "There were already some great teams in this division, and with us moving in, it just makes competition throughout the state that much more interesting, come state tournament time."

Stokes also said AAA will be even more competitive this year. Three state champions, including the Panthers and one team that played for the title, all should make it an interesting year once the playoffs roll around.

"To name a few of the better teams in the state like Pace Academy, Morgan County and Jenkins all had a part of a state championship in their respective classifications," Stokes said. "Pace won the AA title and Morgan County won the Class AAA title and now us being included in the mixture after winning the AAAA title makes this classification probably one of the best in the state."

When it comes to the state championship season last year, Stokes hopes his team will look to the future.

"We can’t dwell on the past and find ways to improve on things we may have slacked on last year," Stokes said. "Being able to start and finish every game strong no matter who we are playing. Defense has always been our major emphasis because defense wins championships."

The Panthers did not lose much from the 2015-16 season roster-wise. Auburn commit and senior Davion Mitchell will lead the team this year after he recorded a team-high 24.2 points and 7.1 assists per game in 29 contests last year.

Junior Will Richardson will play a bigger role after scoring 13.2 points per game while also playing the hero in the state title game by scoring 19 points on 67 percent shooting.

The team will be without Richard LeCounte, who will enroll at the University of Georgia in January and begin to focus on his football career. Stokes mentioned his absence possibly hurting the team, but knows a handful of other players will step up.

"It hurts to lose a guy like Richard LeCounte because he can provide so much for you in all categories," he said. "With that, though, it leaves room for other guys to step up. We always have that next man up mentality and the guy I have in mind to have a great senior season is Tyreon Freeman. He started for us, but about a little before the Christmas break had a foot injury that bothered him later on in the season. If he can stay healthy he will be the next guy to help out with Davion and Will. We also had a few key transfers come in, both having varsity experience. Jyaunti Haggray and Christian Brooks are two craft guards who can shoot and handle the rock."

The Panthers open the season on Saturday when they host 2015-16 AAA state runner-up Jenkins with the tip-off slated for 7:30 p.m.

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