Since then, the Hawks have reached the playoffs each time out, culminating with tonight’s Class AAAAAA state championship game against Norcross at the Macon Centreplex.
As the Region 7AAAA champion in 2009, Hillgrove made the second round of the state playoffs. The next season, it advanced to the state quarterfinals.
Regardless of whether his team misses the playoffs, makes a deep postseason run or loses in the first round, coach Ed Morris concludes each season by asking his players to fill out a questionnaire to help him evaluate the past year and give him insight on what needs to happen in the future.
Last year, Hillgrove went 17-12 and bowed out of the state playoffs with a first-round loss. Morris handed out his questionnaires and awaited the return of each one.
One question on the questionnaire reads: “What do you see your role being next year with this team?”
As the questionnaires came in from his returning players, Morris came to a realization.
“There was no reason to have one-on-one meetings with every kid,” he said. “As a coaching staff, we get together at the end of the season to discuss how we think each player will be able to help us the following year. We ask our kids on the questionnaire to give us their answer to that question, and every kid that played last year had their role down to a ‘T.’
“They had an understanding of those roles and knew what they’d have to do to fulfill those roles. I didn’t need to meet with anybody.”
Perhaps that’s why the Hawks have been so successful.
Hillgrove (28-4) is in the state championship game for the first time because every player understands how their contribution affects the team.
“It’s all about the kids,” said Morris, who has coached the program from the outset. “They’ve understood and accepted their roles, and I give a lot of credit to the seniors for keeping them focused on that.”
Behind the leadership of senior reserves Shamari Southwell and Jordan Sexton, along with senior starters Aren Screen, Jonathan James and John Franklin, Hillgrove has managed to put together its best season of its program’s history — with one more game remaining.
James and Sexton have been in the Hillgrove program since the sixth grade. Franklin moved from Michigan his sophomore season.
“The way the seniors have gotten the guys into the weight room, and out for offseason workouts, paid off. The seniors got on guys, not me. Those five guys have accepted their roles and have everyone playing as a team. No one worries about who gets the credit. Those five guys have been the glue for this team.”
That cohesiveness has led to the Hawks’ camaraderie and chemistry this year. The teams’ only losses this season have been to Region 4AAAAAA rivals North Cobb — three times — and Kennesaw Mountain.
“The team’s chemistry together has translated to wins on the floor,” Morris said. “I’m not surprised by our year. I’ve always believed in these guys and the way they’ve handled themselves the entire year.
“I thought we had a chance to win 20 games with this group, but our region is tough. I didn’t know how good we could, but I knew they’d be fun to coach.”
With the biggest game of the season left to play, Morris said he can’t think of a better group to play it with.
“I liked our bracket when I saw it and thought we’d match up well with enough teams to get to the final four, and then anything can happen,” he said. “Reaching the state championship game makes this even more special.
“I’ll miss this group of kids, state championship or not.”