April 14, 2010 11:24:00 AM
Raymond Walters wanted to keep his options open.
As a football and a basketball standout at New Hope High School, Walters hoped to attract interest from coaches of both sports and then decide which path he wanted to take.
But his success as a leader of New Hope High''s boys basketball team ultimately might have helped set his next step.
On Monday, Walters took that step by signing a national letter of intent to play basketball at East Mississippi Community College.
"I think it is rewarding," Walters said. "I worked hard all my life at basketball, and I knew one day it would pay off.
"I always had a positive attitude, and coach (Drew McBrayer and Robert Byrd) always told me, ''You''re going to be great,'' and "I think you can go to college and play basketball.'' "
Walters said a football tryout at EMCC came a day before a key basketball game for the Trojans, so he said he wasn''t able to go out and do much on the football field.
It''s not that Walters didn''t have anything to fall back on. In fact, he said basketball was what he was really focusing on growing up.
"The opportunity only comes once, and I just jumped on the first opportunity I had," Walters said. "I didn''t have any opportunities in football, so I had to take it in basketball."
Walters will join a program that is coming off its best season. The Lions (27-7) won their first MACJC North Division men''s title and finished as the state runner-up en route to earning their first national tournament appearance.
Led by former Starkville High standouts CoCo Ware and John Harris, EMCC had plenty of local flavor. Walters, a 5-foot-11 left-hander, figures to compete for playing time with the graduation of Ware, Harris, and Terence Bennett, who helped EMCC to a two-year record of 44-18 the past two seasons.
New Hope High School boys basketball coach Drew McBrayer said Walters took time to round into basketball shape after returning from football season. He said Walters was in top form by the end of the season, which was evident in his performance against Oxford in the district title game and against Callaway in the Class 5A North Half State tournament.
Walters scored 10 consecutive points against Oxford with classmate and backcourt mate Johnathan Brandon in foul trouble.
Against Callaway, Walters nearly willed the Trojans to a victory, scoring 27 points in a double-overtime loss in Columbus.
McBrayer wasn''t surer if those performances helped Walters attract interest from college coaches, but he knows Walters has the toughness and ability to play at the next level.
"Once he got into game condition and started shooting the ball well he was one of the better guards around here," McBrayer said. "He came in and did everything you asked. He worked hard and had the confidence to make some very clutch shots, especially against Callaway. He made shot after shot after shot to keep us in the game and to give us the lead."
McBrayer said Walters became the player he believed he could this season. He said hard work in the offseason helped Walters, who averaged 16.5 points per game, emerge as a team leader and a scoring threat.
"I always thought he was going to have a chance to play at the next level," McBrayer said. "Once everybody saw the potential he has to make plays like he did down the stretch, somebody was going to give him a shot to play. He had some other opportunities, but he ended up deciding on East Mississippi. I think it is great because it will be a good fit for him."
McBrayer said Walters, who weighs 219 pounds, will need to lose some of the weight he put on to play football. He said Walters, who can play both backcourt positions, will need to get down to around 200 to be quick enough to stay with the guards at the next level.
Walters knows he will have to slim down and is looking forward to the challenge of going against some of the state''s top players. He said he is excited about the opportunity to concentrate on one sport to see what he can do.
"I think it is a great opportunity," Walters said. "They have a lot of kids I can fit in with and play just like them. I know coach (Mark White) is going to have me working hard."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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