December 11, 2018 4:38:01 PM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
CALEDONIA -- Gary Griffin laid the foundation last season.
In his first year leading the Caledonia High School boys basketball team, Griffin challenged junior Romeo Sanders to become a better leader, teammate, and all-around player. Griffin believed the encouragement would set the tone for Sanders' senior season in 2018-19 and lead to bigger and better things.
Griffin's challenge is paying dividends for the Confederates.
Last week, Sanders lead Caledonia with 28 points in a 66-54 victory against New Hope. The victory snapped a losing streak in the series that is believed to date back to Nov. 19, 2005, a 60-52 Caledonia win in its holiday tournament, a streak of 26 games.
"Never," said Sanders, when was the last time he had been a part of a Caledonia victory against New Hope on the basketball court. Sanders said he has lived at Columbus Air Force Base for nearly his whole life, and has been going to school in Caledonia since kindergarten. "I knew we were going to end up beating them because we have been working hard. That was one of my goals."
Sanders also had 20-plus points Friday in a 68-67 overtime loss to Shannon in the team's Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 4A, Region 2 opener.
For his accomplishment, Sanders is The Dispatch's Prep Player of the Week.
"Romeo probably has been our steadiest player," Griffin said. "He has pretty much led the way for our team offensively and defensively in terms of intensity and keeping the guys motivated with his leadership."
Sanders said he didn't highlight or circle Dec. 4 on his calendar to remind him of the importance of the game against New Hope. However, he admitted the Confederates would face "crunch time" and that they would have to battle for the rivalry victory. He said his season-high point total was a result of being in the proverbial "zone" shooters and scorers get in when they're having a great game.
"My teammates kept me up when things were going bad and we were lacing on defense," Sanders said.
Griffin said Sanders is more willing to step up and take on a leadership role when things aren't going well. That move is working out well for the Confederates, who are off to an 8-2 start. Sanders is playing a key role as the team's leading scorer. Griffin said Sanders also is the player most likely to guard the best offensive player on the other team.
That's part of the reason why Sanders takes pride in his defense and uses his energy on that end of the floor to generate offense.
Griffin said Sanders, who is 6-foot-2 1/2 and 170 pounds, has responded from the challenge his coach issued. He said those expectations have increased in the Confederates' five-out offense that allows all of the players to create shots and to work with their teammates. Griffin said Jarvis Leigh, Tyrin Johnson, and Sanders all see playing time at point guard on a team that doesn't have a true center. Two of the Confederates' tallest players are Devonte Martin or Johnson, who are 6-3. Cooper McCleskey is listed at 6-5, but he is considered a guard or small forward.
"I knew coming into this year he would step up his game even more because he had added responsibility after being a first-team all-district player," Griffin said. "We have talked and we text each other a lot and we have talked about being a leader and the importance of defense and how defense wins championships.
"It is all about buying in, and he has bought in. I can see a big difference in his game. Other coaches have called me to tell me they have seen a big difference in his overall game. I am very pleased with him."
Sanders admitted taking on a bigger role on a young team with a new coach was "hard." Still, he said he found his voice because he realized Griffin was using his first season to set the tone for the following seasons. Sanders said his willingness to talk to his teammates and to motivate them has increased from last season. He said it has been easier to do that because everyone believes in their teammates and wants to build on the fast start.
Sanders describes himself as a "slash-shooter" who likes to drive a lot. On the other end of the court, he said he enjoys getting his teammates "hyped" to turn their defense into offense.
"I'm smarter and more of a team player than last year because I realize the team we have," Sanders said. "My defense has improved and I have learned more so the game comes easier. I have learned I can be a great leader, and I can take criticism well."
Looking back, Sanders feels the challenge he faced last season has set him and his teammates up for a great finish to the 2018-19 campaign.
"I like the challenge he gave me because it made me tougher," Sanders said. "Last year wasn't our best year, but it kept me up and I had faith that next year was going to be our year. This year, I feel great. Now, I know the things we need to do and how we need to do it."
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Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.