Each year, there are things that can be counted on for the Pope boys basketball team.
Under longtime coach Pat Abney, the Greyhounds are expected to be fundamentally sound and well-coached. Also, by the time the region and state tournaments come around, there is not an opponent that will want to face Pope.
Teams have not been wanting to play the Greyhounds early this season either.
Pope started the season by winning 12 of its first 15 games, with wins over No. 7 Chattahoochee and Class AAAAAAA programs Lassiter and South Forsyth, as well as a close loss to Cherokee. Pope stumbled in its last two games, with losses to No. 8 North Atlanta and in its rematch with Chattahoochee, but that has not tempered the enthusiasm for a potential region championship and a long playoff run.
“I really think we have a chance to be really good,” Abney said. “Preparation is the key to our success.”
Abney said he has the kind of team that is willing to do the dirty work, and it begins with a group of players who have been playing together for a long time. The starting five of Ross Shepherd, Will Kolker, Gannon Brown, Caden Jessop and Cam Beleshoy have been playing together since middle school. The group has also benefited from playing together in a summer AAU league.
Abney said it starts with Shepherd, a 6-foot-6 post player averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds per game. The player who guards the paint is the one that leads by example.
“We’ll have a 7 a.m. practice, and he is at the gym at 6:15 a.m.,” Abney said.
Brown also is 6-6, while Bleshoy is 6-4. Jessop, who Abney says is the defensive stopper who takes out the opponent’s best player, is 6-3, and Kolker, who is averaging 16 points and eight assists per game, is 6-2.
In all, 14 of the 15 players on Pope’s roster are at least 6 feet tall.
“We are blessed with length,” Abney said. “It allows us to play multiple defenses.”
Friday night could be a key game for the Greyhounds. They will get a second chance against Johns Creek, a team that is 13-4 but unranked.
The Gladiators handed Pope one of its other losses, winning 97-81 in overtime. It was a game in which the Greyhounds used all their energy to tie the game with a 31-point fourth quarter, only to go quiet in the extra period.
A victory could move Pope into a tie for the region lead with one more revenge game on the horizon — the team’s regular-season finale against North Atlanta. A win there could set the Greyhounds up for a top seed when the region tournament is played at Chattahoochee.
Abney said it does not matter how his team gets there, as long as the players do it together.
“The best part of it is they are best friends off the court,” he said. “They just want to win, and the guys don’t care about stats.”