Ready to defend

Henderson Collegiate men’s basketball coach George Marshall (center) talks to his players during a practice at the school last week. Henderson Collegiate is trying to chase its second NCHSAA 1A championship, but will do so under an offseason program abbreviated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

HENDERSON — For the first time in program history, the Henderson Collegiate men’s basketball team will enter a season as NCHSAA 1A champions, an honor they shared with Winston-Salem Prep after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of their final game in the spring.

Head coach and athletic director George Marshall was thrilled to see the players’ hard work pay off, but he said that focus has shifted towards mentally and physically toward preparing the current roster for a fast and rigorous campaign.

“We’re at a point now where I don’t want us to dwell too much on last year,” Marshall said. “Our success was important to our school and our community, but we want to start focusing on this group. The team we have this year is a lot different than last year’s, but that’s not a bad thing. It just means we have new skills that we’re excited to display, but I think the senior leadership will be one of our biggest strengths.”

During a normal summer, Marshall ensures that his players are thoroughly battle-tested with team camps and other activities before they tackle their schedule, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has required the program to come up with a different offseason training strategy.

While most of the players were still able to participate in travel basketball to stay in shape and maintain their competitive nature, Marshall said that bonding and communication during the first few weeks of practice will be crucial to help the Pride peak before the start of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A playoffs.

The team still has a majority of its core from the 2019-20 season, outside of departed senior Kalib Mathews, whose averages of 19.0 points and 2.3 steals per game led all other Henderson Collegiate players.

Marshall is expecting senior Akhiris Holden to have an excellent campaign after he led the team in rebounds with 7.5 and averaged 12.8 points per game, while Henderson Collegiate’s assists leader, JaQuaveon Venable, will also have a more active role in the offense.

Although Venable was thrilled to help his team win a state championship, he is eager to claim that honor again through a more traditional manner and is confident that the roster assembled for 2021 will be strong enough to do it.

“Not being able to get into the gym together over the past few months as much as we did the last couple of years has been tough,” Venable said. “We also lost a couple of teammates, but that’s part of the game. We have to keep going regardless of the situation and we have a group of guys who are able to do that.”

Outside of Holden and Venable, Marshall is confident junior T.J. Ragland will find a place in the active rotation after being one of the top contributors on Henderson Collegiate’s JV program last season.

Marshall believes the roster’s diverse skill will make Henderson Collegiate dangerous on every part of the court, and is looking to see all its parts mesh as he fine-tunes the team’s game plan over the next few weeks.

“Last year we really had one or two guys who could really carry the scoring load,” Marshall said. “This year’s team is going to have to be more similar to the one from two years ago, which was a much more balanced approach. Our goal is to try and get as many people over eight points as possible because it would show a defense that they have to defend everyone on the court.”

Senior Davon Allen, who averaged 4.8 point, 2.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists a game off the bench last season, is ready to help a revamped Henderson Collegiate win their second straight title, but he also wants to mentor the team’s underclassmen.

“When I leave, I want to make sure that my group stays committed and stays together as a team,” Allen said. “As a senior, I want to get my younger boys together and show them some love, take them under my wing and tell them what I’ve learned. I want to get [Henderson Collegiate] another ring, but if I can’t do that, then I at least I helped build a great brotherhood.”

Marshall and his staff have also focused on safety by making sure their players are abiding by protocols instituted by Henderson Collegiate and the NCHSAA so no COVID-19 outbreaks occur during the season.

Even with many unknowns facing Henderson Collegiate ahead of the 2021 season, Marshall knows that his players are more than capable of excelling on both offense and defense when play begins during the first week of January.

“It’s going to take a lot of selflessness and hard work to get another title,” Marshall said. “Selflessness really is the key because if this team can buy into the idea of ‘we over me’ and really be more excited about someone else’s success instead of their own, then everything else is going to fall into line. I think this could be the best team we’ve ever had at Henderson Collegiate, period.”