May 21, 2016 9:44:01 PM
Today, The Dispatch presents its annual All-Area Prep Basketball Players and Coaches of the Year.
Headlining that group is Mississippi coaching veteran Luther Riley, who is the Large Schools Boys' Basketball Coach of Year.
In his fist season with the Falcons, Riley guided Columbus High School to the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A state championship - the school's first state championship in a team sport.
When Riley was hired at Columbus High School, the goal was simple - win a state championship.
While the Falcons have not been a Mississippi Coliseum regular, Riley looked at his first roster and saw senior after senior after senior (10 total).
He also looked back in his past and saw state championship trophy after state championship trophy after state championship trophy (five before this year).
So with the goal of winning the state's largest classification, Riley set out on his new odyssey, trying to win a new set of players over to how he does things.
"We were all excited because we knew that Coach Riley had won a bunch of state championships," Columbus senior Christopher Deloach said. "I think from the first practice everybody was ready to go. We listened a little bit harder in practice. We had a lot of pieces and he had to find a way to put it all together. It was a matter of everybody getting along, buying into a new system and getting the hard work done."
Under longtime coach Sammy Smith, the Falcons relied on defense and rarely had scores break 60 points.
Suddenly, the squad was asked to go in another direction. With Riley, it is always about pizazz. There is a show to be put on. Fans come to see up-tempo offense and high-flying dunks.
As the team began to win games early, the crowds continued to build.
Riley earned his coaching pedigree with a series of state championships at Provine. Still so closely connected to the Jackson-area, Riley played a lot of the Jackson-area schools.
There were also the traditional epic matchups with New Hope and Starkville.
Robert Woodard II, a rising junior and widely considered the state's top prospect for 2018, bought in right away. The Falcons were ready to soar and on most nights, they had more than one option.
"With so many seniors, we knew how important this season would be," Woodard said. "You never know how often you will be able to compete for a state championship. We thought we could make a run this year. I think that is why everybody worked so hard. Players came early. Players stayed late. We were really a close group and we had a lot of fun chasing the championship together."
Riley liked the makeup of his team from those early workouts.
"It's all about mind-set," Riley said. "How hard are you going to work to reach your full potential? We had a lot of guys with scholarship offers and they put all of that on the back burner for the good of the team. We had some ups and downs early, but we never lost focus on the No. 1 goal. Everything we were doing was paving the way for February and March. That is when you want to play your best ball."
In a highly-anticipated showdown with Starkville on Dec. 12, Starkville had its way winning 80-61 on its home court. Starkville had actually begun the season ranked No. 1 in the state and as the defending Class 6A state champions. Thanks to its early play, Columbus had moved on top as the state's top-ranked team. Still, the Falcons took the loss in stride, knowing better days were ahead.
"That loss really humbled us," Columbus senior guard Javonte McDavid said. "We realized we weren't as good as we thought we were. We also realized that everybody on the team has to play to its full potential for us to be successful. Instead of getting down, it made us go back to the gym and work harder."
Riley always had the pulse of his team. As a veteran coach, he knows a season will have twists and turns. He consistently preached not getting too high and not getting too low.
In January, Columbus began the new year with a heart-stopping one-point win over New Hope. That was followed up by a 70-47 win over Starkville, which kind of had everybody feeling good again.
Columbus senior T.J. Gray said the team knew then it was among the state's elite. However, it didn't feel like a state championship contender until consecutive wins over Tupelo to grab the region regular-season and tournament championships.
"Tupelo was a really good," Gray said. "A lot of people said Tupelo would win the state championship. When we were able to beat them twice, we knew that we had a good enough team to win our own championship. Coach Riley had a vision for us. It didn't mean anything though until we had some proof. Once we started winning games like that, we had proof."
Proof, talent and a veteran coach can be hard to beat.
Many wondered how Columbus would handle the "Big Stage" since the Mississippi Coliseum was a new destination. Columbus put those fears to rest with dominating victories over George County and Southaven to earn a rubber match with Starkville.
Columbus won 37-33 to bring a first-ever gold ball back to Lowndes County. The Falcons finished 28-5.
"It was a special group," Riley said. "They really bought in. They sacrificed. When we faced adversity, we learned from it. We grew as a team. We learned how to win a championship."
With 10 seniors on the roster, there might be a rebuilding year on the horizon. Knowing Riley though, the Falcons should be a whole lot better than that.
Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. You can email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter