To call getting to the Sweet 16 a disappointment would be a major overstatement…that is for any program except Banks County. The Leopards have proven for the better part of the past decade — and the beginning of this one — to be the standard that all other boys basketball programs in Northeast Georgia should shoot for.
Going back to 2012-13, the Leopards ended the season that year at 5-21 with a single region win to their credit. Within a year, that ballooned to 13-13 and narrowly missing out on state in ’13-14. That was the first step. What followed was a now six-season streak of consecutive playoff runs, four region championships (regular season or tournament), and 5 20-win seasons. The only non-20 win campaign came last year, with 19 wins and a round one exit.
The win total since the ’14-15 season to date is 138-35. That’s just insane. 103 games over .500. Still, the one and only thing lacking for this program’s resume is the elephant in the room that coach Mike Cleveland and the Leopards would love to turn into a monkey off their back….a game that comes AFTER the Sweet 16.
“Our next goal after the region championship was Final Four,” says Cleveland. “We feel like we have the makeup to make that happen…we know it won’t be easy. Our style of play will be very important. It won’t be because of effort that we don’t get there.”
His players echo the sentimate.
“It’s definitely been brought up,” says star guard/forward Carl Cleveland, who recently surpassed 1,000 career rebounds and earlier this season hit the 2,000-point mark. “We want that as a whole team. We want to get past the Sweet 16. I think we can really do it this year, it’s one of the best teams we’ve had in a long time.”
The Young Harris commit is averaging 24.3 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 5 assists per game and has 25 double-doubles and 3 triple-doubles.
The Leopards have gotten to the second round of the playoffs in four straight years from ’14-15 through ’17-18. This year could be the best chance to get over the proverbial hump.
The guys have gelled together this season. They’re 21-4 overall, having rarely lost, and seemingly cruised to the regular season AND tournament region championship. The two loses that stick out like a sore thumb are actually a blessing in disguise. Losses to non-state playoff teams Lumpkin and Rabun.
“After those losses, the coaches just rode us and wanted us to gain a lot from it,” says junior forward Dakota Orr. “Going into those games, we knew we should have won them. It really just hurt us…but we just got better.”
One reason the Leopards have been so dominant is the offense. Between Cleveland and Orr, as well as junior sharp-shooter Pierce Martin (38% on 3-pointers), the guys are just about unstoppable at getting the ball in the hoop.
“You just know if you’re not hitting it, you know someone else on your team is going to do it, and it just makes it 10 times easier” says Martin, who opened the season with a career-high 31 points against powerhouse Jefferson.
While coach Cleveland always seems to point to having a great group of players as the reason for the success, it’s also worth pointing out that players take on the persona of their coach.
“I think we’re playing well at the right time,” says Cleveland. “As long as we can stay healthy right here for this little stretch, I really think we can play with anybody in 2A.”
That starts Friday night against Washington in Homer for the opening round of the tournament.
Digital Copy of Interview – Carl Cleveland, Pierce Martin, Dakota Orr
Digital Copy of Interview - Carl Cleveland, Pierce Martin, Dakota Orr
Digital Copy of Interview – Mike Cleveland
Digital Copy of Interview - Mike Cleveland