As a ninth grader, Owen Parker figured he and his fellow Jefferson freshmen had nowhere to go but up.
The Jefferson basketball team struggled to a 4-21 record that year, closing with 12 straight losses.
“We knew we couldn’t stay that bad for that long,” Parker said.
They didn’t. But perhaps not even they could have forecasted what those better days would look like as seniors.
Now, here they are. The 22-7 Dragons will play for a state championship Thursday (March 5) against Pace Academy (27-4) in Macon. The transformation from a four-win program to one that’s one win away from a state title has come in a relatively short amount of time.
That’s one of the reasons this season’s run has been so meaningful to these seniors. They remember when times were not so great.
Senior center Jacob Radaker, who had transferred to Jefferson as a ninth grader, recalled that freshman year. He chalked up the struggles of that season as a learning experience.
“The four wins, that was just a place to build from,” the 6-9 Naval Academy signee said.
But Parker — one half of a twin tandem with his brother Daniel — remembered the frustration of those losses as they piled up.
“Because we were in a lot of games,” he remembered. “We just never won them. We would blow it in the fourth quarter every time.”
Parker added that it was “just a weird year.”
“It really was,” Radaker chimed in, agreeing. “We lost a lot of players throughout the year, too.”
The 4-21 season came during a particularly rough stretch in Jefferson’s basketball history, too. The team had gone 7-22 and 9-18 the two years prior to that. Parker remembered expectations being low after so many losses.
“It’s like no one really cared that we were losing,” he said.
But the program still had hope with the talented freshmen class. It just needed time to grow and mature. Coach Kevin Morris, whose first year on the job came on the heels of that four-win season, was told by former coach Bolling DuBose that he was inheriting a special group.
“He said … ‘You’re going to be OK with those guys. You’ve got to let them grow up a little bit,’” Morris said.
And they have.
A major turnaround happened in Morris’s first season with an 18-11 record. The team went 17-11 a year later. Now the program is playing for a state title. No other team in Jefferson boys’ basketball history has reached the state finals.
This senior group has weathered the loss of some major pieces of the class along the way to getting to where it is now. Jasper Gibson, an eventual 2,000-point scorer, transferred to Dawson County after his sophomore year. Donsha Gaither left the Dragons for Gainesville this year. Yet, Jefferson is one of just two teams left standing in the Class AAA tournament.
“This is a resilient group of seniors,” Morris said, “and you add a Malaki (Starks), you add a Kam (Robinson) and a Spencer (Darby) to that group of seniors and here we are.”
Morris noted that roles have changed over the years for this group. Radaker has transformed from being "just a tall kid," the coach said, to a dominant and polished post player headed to a Division I school. And Owen Parker and Daniel Parker have evolved from role players to major cogs of this team.
The chemistry within a senior class that’s been through the ups and downs together has remained strong, too. Michael Johnson, a senior post player in his second year with the program, noticed that bond when he transferred in as a junior.
“Coming in, it was automatically just like a brotherhood within the family,” Johnson said. “Especially going from junior to senior year. This group of six seniors that we have, they’re so close. It’s kind of like a family, on the court and off the court. So being able to translate that … the flow we play together (with) it’s just instinctive.”
Together the group has changed the trajectory of Jefferson basketball. But even these seniors, after that four-win freshman season, couldn’t have anticipated ending their careers in the state title game.
“The goal was there, but I don’t think we could have imagined how well we’re doing this year,” Radaker said. “For sure, the goal is to always win state, but actually getting here, I don’t think it was like ever a for-sure possibility.”
They aim to make the most of this opportunity, though. They started with four wins. They want to finish as champions.
“It’s our last time to go out there, so we might as well leave it all out there,” Parker said.