After talking with his players throughout the summer and into preseason preparations, Winder-Barrow head boys’ basketball coach Travis McDaniel said the team decided to set one overriding goal for the 2021-22 campaign, which began Tuesday, Nov. 16, with the Bulldoggs’ season opener at Jackson County: “Get back.”

Not an ode to the 1969 hit song by the Beatles, but a determination to earn a third-straight trip to the state playoffs (which would be the first time the program has accomplished that feat since 1971-73) and see if they can take things another step further this winter.

The Bulldoggs found their way into the tournament in each of McDaniel’s first two seasons and, last year, pulled off the program’s first playoff win since 2002 with a road upset of top-5-ranked Douglas County before a Sweet Sixteen exit against eventual state semifinalist Centennial.

McDaniel and the Bulldoggs don’t just believe they’re capable of another trip to the playoffs and an even deeper run; it’s now an expectation, even as the team works to replace a handful of key seniors off last year’s squad and will have an overall different physical look about it.

“It’s always an accomplishment to make the state playoffs, and to again do it in this region would be even more impressive,” said McDaniel, referencing GHSA Region 8-AAAAAA, which had two teams rated in the preseason top 10 for Class 6A (No. 4 Buford and No. 6 Lanier), with the Bulldoggs and Shiloh (the other two playoff teams from last year) and the rest of the region expected to field highly competitive teams. “(The offseason) has been really good. The energy is really good. The buy-in is there. We’ve got a lot of new pieces, we’ve added a lot of guys, and we’re going to need to have some guys fill some new roles. But they’ve all welcomed that and are trying to execute their role.”

The most noticeable difference between last year’s Winder-Barrow team and this season’s will be the height on the inside. The Bulldoggs graduated two Division I forwards (6-foot-9 Wyatt Fricks to Marshall and 6-foot-10 Isaiah Nelson-Ododa to Tennessee Tech) who combined to average roughly 33 points, 19 rebounds and 8 blocks a game. Juniors Conyer Smith and Jacob King will be counted on to provide some minutes and physicality at the basket for the Bulldoggs, while 6-foot-3 senior transfer Luke Sheats (who spent last year at Bethlehem Christian Academy before deciding to come back to Winder-Barrow) will add some height to the rotation and be asked to account for at least some of the loss of Fricks’ shooting abilities out on the perimeter.

But the team’s offensive efforts will largely center around its two guards who bring Division I-level talent to the table — senior Tim Loud and junior Jeremiah Holloway.

“Our advantage last year was we had two players (Fricks and Nelson-Ododa) who could consistently alter shots at the rim and help on the glass,” McDaniel said. “This year we’re obviously going to be more guard-oriented, but Tim had a great offseason and added more layers to his game, and (Holloway) is going to be a tremendous player for us, one who I think will open some eyes in this difficult region.”

After emerging as a key “sixth man” for the Bulldoggs as a sophomore, Loud busted out as junior last winter, averaging 17.2 points with 2.4 steals and knocking down 63 3-pointers at an impressive 36% clip. McDaniel has had persistent praise for Loud’s energy and the opportunities he opens up on the floor for his teammates when opponents try to key on him.

“I love Tim to death,” McDaniel said. “There’s been nobody who has logged as many hours in the gym with me as him. From the guy dying to get in the gym at any time in between his freshman and sophomore years when I got here to the huge jump he took last year, he’s been really good. As coaches, we’ve tried to focus with him on building off his strengths but also got him to be realistic about some of the holes in his game. He worked really hard on his body in the offseason, added about 13 pounds of muscle, and that’s going to help him on both ends. It’ll help him be better defensively, and we’ll need him to be able to rebound more this year. Offensively, he’s gotten more comfortable moving to his left, and that just adds another layer and dimension for him.”

Loud will have another big-time scoring threat joining him in the back court this season in Holloway, who came to Winder-Barrow from Tattnall Square Academy in Macon and is among the top-rated juniors in the state.

The addition of Holloway “definitely helped (Loud) in the offseason workouts because Tim didn’t always have someone to match him athletically,” McDaniel said. “They’ve pushed each other and like to compete against each other, but they’ve got really great chemistry and have become really good friends, too. Holloway is a legit point guard who’s good as a floor general and helps Tim stay involved, and they’re a very cohesive pair. Those two will be able to cause quite a bit of problems for defenses.

“Anytime you get a transfer move in to a school, you don’t always know what you’re going to get and they don’t always jell with the other guys. But with these last two we’ve had (Fricks and now Holloway), we’ve been blessed. They’re straight-A students and great kids who get along with the other guys and help us out in more ways than one.”

The Bulldoggs will plan to round out their main rotation with senior guard Stewart Allen, a key bench player off the last two playoff teams expected to take on a more prominent role, along with junior Dominique Jones, sophomore Tyrin Sims and freshman Brian Arnold, who McDaniel said has made an immediate impression and is part of a deep and talented incoming ninth-grade group.

McDaniel will hope to see several of those players get adjusted to the varsity level quickly over the Bulldoggs’ first nine games before they open region play Dec. 17 against Shiloh.

“It’s going to be fun, but stressful because there’s nowhere on the schedule where you can take a night off,” McDaniel said in the lead-up to Tuesday’s opener. “We want to make sure we hone in on a few things and find our identity these first few games. We think we’ve done a good job in practice, but we haven’t gone out and done it against a different jersey.

“We’ve made good progress to get to this point, but our goal is to get in again and anything is possible beyond that point. It’s going to be a major task in this region, but we’re looking forward to the challenge and are going to do everything we can to be one of those four teams (in the region) left standing and then see what happens from there.”

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