Seven in-state signees highlight the first full-fledged recruiting class for Columbia State under second-year women’s basketball coach Gwen Burton.
“The objective was to get kids in-state, and try to get a good mixture of kids from out of state as well – have some diversity on the team,” Burton said.
Appointed last May to revive the Lady Charger program after a one-year layoff following the departure of Bridget Goodnight, whose contract expired at the end of the 2017-18 season, Burton pieced together a roster for the ’19-20 campaign that went 2-23 and often played with just one reserve.
The top four players from last year’s squad – guard Aalyiah Davis, a product of Clarksville’s West Creek, guards Diamond Cannon and Denaj’za Jackson and forward Treshondra Williams – are all set to return.
Joining that nucleus will be a group of local products that includes forward Bri’anna Brown and guard Carrie Johnson from Giles County, forwards Hannah Davis and Kelsey Keeler from Marshall County, guard Asia Matthews from Blackman and guard Brittany Lawless-Sherrill from Nashville Christian.
Other incoming freshmen include Tyreesha Sanders, a forward from Chattanooga Brainerd; Mya Byrd, a guard from Ashburn (Ga.) Turner County; forward De’Anna Williams, a center from Sylvester (Ga.) Worthy County; and Chedai Rouser, a forward from Flint (Mich.) Hamady.
Rouser is one of four Michiganders on the roster, along with Cannon and fellow Hamady graduates Jackson and Treshondra Williams.
Prior to taking the Lady Chargers helm, Burton had spent a season at Henry Ford College, a two-year school in Michigan.
“Last year was a great experience for me,” Burton said. “It gives me more hope for this season, and raises my expectations and standards, especially with these kids coming in from winning programs.
“The size, the commitment, and the academics are going to be there. With Diamond and Tre coming back – they played 12 or 13 games (joining the team after the Christmas break) and were named second-team all-conference. With that dynamic coming back, and with getting Mya, she’ll be the strong point guard we need to control the tempo of our offense and defense.”
Byrd drew recruiting interest at the NCAA Division I, including from Georgia Tech and Arkansas-Little Rock.
With eyes still on a few prospects, Burton likes the pieces she already has in place for her second campaign with the Lady Chargers.
“You can’t coach height,” she said. “We’ll be able to mix it up in the post area. We’re going to be faster and stronger, (able to) rebound more, push tempo, press and understand basketball.”
Over a twisting and turning path from the Tuscaloosa, Ala., high school ranks to a baseball scholarship at Ole Miss, Brandon Johnson’s faith has been at the forefront – particularly as he contemplated his next move after a shortened 2020 campaign at Columbia State.
“I’m a religious guy. I prayed a lot about it,” Johnson said this weekend after announcing his commitment via Twitter. “I’ve learned through my long journey of recruitment that relationships are one of the most important things, if not the most important.
“If you can find a right fit for yourself, you can be confident and comfortable with where you’re going. That’s the ultimate decision-maker.”
With the Chargers’ season – and all of college baseball – halted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Ole Miss coaches were unable to see Johnson in live action this spring and vice versa. Still, he felt secure in tabbing the Rebels over Southeastern Conference rivals Alabama and Kentucky as well as Purdue and Jacksonville State.
“Before everything went down with the coronavirus, they were recruiting me,” Johnson said. “They were supposed to come see me the weekend (March 13-14, at Jackson State) that everything got canceled. But they relied on video and reports from different coaches.
“I really liked the coaching staff, and the atmosphere. And right now, they’re on a 16-game win streak. So, recent history, they’re right up there with the best in the SEC. I couldn’t turn it down.”
After opening the season with a Valentine’s Day loss to Louisville, Ole Miss had won 16 straight heading into their scheduled SEC opener against LSU before play was stopped.
Johnson, a 6-foot, 185-pound right-hander who initially signed with Alabama-Huntsville out of Brookwood High School, was similarly hot this spring. In his first two outings, he worked seven innings – striking out 20 with two walks to earn National Junior College Athletic Association Pitcher of the Week honors.
He continued his good work over the Chargers’ 9-15 (3-3 TCCAA) schedule, posting a 5-0 record with a 2.48 earned run average and 51 strikeouts in 29 innings.
“After my redshirt freshman year, we had our exit meetings after the (TCCAA tournament) loss to Dyersburg State,” Johnson said. “Coach (Mike) Corn told me if I had a good offseason, worked on some things, I had a good chance to play (NCAA Division I) Power 5 or even SEC ball. I got to the spring, and it all just clicked together.”
On an upward trajectory after going 3-0 with a save, a 3.31 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 51.2 innings in his first year at C-State, Johnson is ready for whatever role is in store for him at Ole Miss.
“They expect to lose two or three guys to the (Major League Baseball) draft,” he said. “Hopefully I can be of help to them. But it depends on the fall and getting everybody lined up.
“They’ll put me in the place that best benefits them.”
Winston Neal couldn’t call the coronavirus pandemic a positive, but the veteran Columbia State men’s basketball coach couldn’t deny that his roster for the 2020-21 season is in place quicker than any of his previous five.
“It’s extraordinarily early,” Neal said earlier this week as he confirmed the signing of eight freshmen and three more commitments, along with six returnees from the Charger squad that finished 23-10 and won the TCCAA tournament championship to claim a berth in the national tourney that was ultimately canceled because of the COVID-19 virus.
“Most junior colleges don’t finalize their (recruiting) classes until July. For us, I’ve taken the approach, that (NCAA Division I) mentality of get it done sooner rather than later. We’ve tried to be done in May (previously).”
The freshman class will span four different states, spearheaded by Cleevas Craig, a 6-9, 240-pound post from Ft. Wayne, Ind., and a pair of talented perimeter players from the Bluegrass State. Two other signees are from the north Alabama area, along with three in-state recruits.
“That’s a (C-State assistant) Quan Dudley special right there,” Neal said regarding the “super-athletic” Craig. “He’s the one that recruited him. The young man is extraordinarily talented, especially in the post.”
Craig will pair in the paint with Malique Oates – who the Chargers saw up close last season, as he played for Tennessee Valley Prep out of Huntsville.
“He’s the one we had trouble scoring against,” Neal said. “He’s got some size. He’s needs to get in better shape, but he’s working on that.”
Also from Alabama is Xavier Griffith, who played at East Limestone. Both he and West Creek’s Kamarie Coffey are expected to transition out of the paint.
“(Griffith) is about 6-6, 230,” Neal said. “He primarily played the ‘4’, but we’re going to play him at the wing because he shoots the ball really well. Kamarie’s a 6-6 shooter. He primarily played the ‘4’, but he’s a wing – a shooting guard, small forward. We’re just trying to get as big and strong and long and athletic as possible.”
Slated for perimeter play as well are Trevon Harris, from Elizabethtown, Ky., and Chris McKnight, who played at Arlington, just outside of Memphis. McKnight was coached by Mo Miller, who – like Neal – played at Georgia Tech under former Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt.
“Trevon’s a 6-4 combo wing,” Neal said. “We really like his ability to rebound, defend and create. (Arlington) runs very similar defensive schemes to what we do, so I’m really looking forward to (McKnight) picking up things very quickly because he’s already done them. He’s a 6-4 shooter/slasher with great size, great skill level, so we’re really excited about both our in-state wings with (McKnight and Coffey).
“Xavier got recruited by some D-Is, Kamarie got recruited by some D-Is, Chris did, Tre did, so we really feel like those guys are going to be able to play D-I sooner rather than later. They have the length, the athleticism, the size we’re looking for.”
Both point guard signees – Amirion Joyce, from Paris, Ky., and Tray Swift, from Dyer County – also drew Division I recruiting interest, Neal said.
“(Joyce) was the top available point guard in Kentucky,” the coach said. “We’re very excited about him. He’s a 6-1, 6-2, athletic point guard. If he can develop his jump shot, he’s going to be playing D-I. He’s got the size, the athleticism. And Tray’s a scoring, shooting point guard.”
With the departures of two-year starters Gene Holmes and Jayden Lockett at the point and wing, Neal and assistants Dudley and Larry Jones were particularly focused on reinforcing those positions.
“Those were massive voids we need to fill,” Neal said. “We’re going to be young at those positions, but I do think we’re going to be extremely talented.”
With commitments also from Summit’s Tre Carlton, Centennial’s Isaiah Poore and Clarksville Northeast’s Ty Jackson, the sizeable Charger freshman class will mesh with returners R.J. Abernathy, Jamari Bostic, Chris Nix, Darius Rozier, Toni Sparkman and Tarre’q Williams. Bostic and Nix each earned all-conference honors as freshmen.
While Neal wouldn’t say the pandemic helped C-State’s recruiting efforts, the situation certainly didn’t hamper them.
“We’re very excited about him. He’s a 6-1, 6-2, athletic point guard. If he can develop his jump shot, he’s going to be playing D-I. He’s got the size, the athleticism. And Tray’s a scoring, shooting point guard.”
CSCC Head Coach Winston Neal on incoming freshman Amirion Joyce
“I give Quan a lot of credit on this,” he said. “Quan has done an amazing job of getting on guys early. We’ve been on these guys for a very, very long time. We had relationships built before the pandemic hit. Quan was on Cleevas for six months before he committed. Tre (Harris) came to a regular-season game. Kamarie came to a regular-season game. We’ve had guys here, on campus. They’d seen us, we had relationships with them, they knew us really well, so when the pandemic hit, it canceled out a bunch of visits, but that’s already, because we had built those relationships.
“We’ve made really good inroads into north Alabama, really good inroads into Kentucky, and we want to keep that up. I think we’ve done a really good job recruiting Tennessee of late, and we want to keep that up. There’s still four or five kids out of Nashville I’d love to sign, but we’re just not going to be able to.”