Drake, Powell share Coach of the Year honor

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor 

It’s hard to explain how inspiring the coaching across boys basketball in Shelby County was this year with six teams finishing above .500, six making the postseason, three advancing to the Sweet 16, two winning area championships and one advancing to the Elite Eight.

Oak Mountain head coach Chris Love put together one of the deepest and best teams in the county full of young talent. Chris Laatsch at Spain Park got his team to arguably compete harder than any other team in his first year with the Jags. William Grant at Helena led his team to the Sweet 16 in his first season despite two key losses from the previous season’s Sweet 16 team. Vincent’s John Hadder led his team to the Elite Eight despite having just one senior on his squad. Nic Baumbaugh at Chelsea led his Hornets to a share of the area title with Helena, before a coin toss kept them from hosting the area tourney.

All of those jobs stand alone in their levels of success and what they were able to accomplish during the 2018-19 basketball season, but two names weren’t mentioned because they went above and beyond.

Shelby County head coach Cedric Drake and Thompson head coach Dru Powell both accomplished incredible feats that are difficult to do at any level of competition.

After the Wildcats and Warriors both finished with a single win during the 2017-18 season, both coaches were able to come into this season and completely shift the focus and confidence of their players to not only lead them to finishing above .500, but several games above .500 with playoff berths.

With the Wildcats winning the regular season area championship and finishing runner-up in the area tournament, they earned a spot in their first Sub-Regional since 2015, while the Warriors were able to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013.

Both coaches accomplishing that feat after their teams finished with one win a year earlier made them more than deserving to share the 2019 Shelby County Coach of the Year award.

While the success for the two coaches was similar, each had a different path to achieving that success.

During the 2017-18 season, Shelby County’s only win came early in the year with a 66-61 victory against Montevallo.  The Wildcats then lost 16 consecutive games to finish the season 1-22.

Heading into his third season, however, Drake was able to finally get an experienced team with two trustworthy seniors in Nathan Bates and Tae Whetstone that helped the team mesh.

After a 7-7 start to the season, Bates and Whetstone, under the direction of Drake, got going and helped the Wildcats win six games in a row and nine of 10 to improve to 16-8 overall and finish regular-season area play undefeated at 6-0.

While Shelby County lost in the area tournament championship game to Marbury 52-44 and then in the sub-regional round of the playoffs to Central Tuscaloosa 64-50, the Wildcats finished the year 16-10 overall—a drastic improvement from finishing 21 games under .500 the year before. 

For Powell at Thompson, it was a little bit different for him, as he took over in his first season trying to flip a 1-24 team into a winning program quickly.

Having been a young team before he arrived, he was able to inherit some good young talent with several sophomores playing that already had a good bit of experience as freshman, mixed with the right batch of seniors.

If you question the job he did because of athletic football players being on his team, he was able to turn the team around well before they stepped onto the floor due to the football team’s deep run in the postseason.

He led the team to a 9-1 start and a spot in the top 10 of the Class 7A poll, which lasted for much of the season.

Once the football players did join the team, he had to retool his lineup and figure out what worked best on the floor. That led to the Warriors losing four of their next five games, but they bounced back by winning five in a row.

Then area play came, which featured several difficult losses. Thompson swept Tuscaloosa County but got swept by both Hoover and Oak Mountain during the regular season despite chances to pull off upsets of both teams, including leading the No. 2 Bucs late in the game both times.

Thompson then went on to close out the regular season with three consecutive wins to finish at 19-10 heading into the area tournament.

In the area tourney, the Warriors took advantage of a third matchup with Oak Mountain, and despite the Eagles being the better team the first two times around, Thompson played aggressive from the start to pick up a 58-51 victory and claim a spot in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013.

After falling to the Bucs in the area tournament championship game, Thompson went on to play Huntsville in the Sweet 16. The Warriors led at the half, but never could find offensive success in the second half and went on to drop the game 59-47 to end a special season.

Despite that loss, Thompson finished the season 20-12 overall and won 19 more games than the season before, finishing eight games above .500 after finishing 23 games below .500 the season before.

While the numbers speak to the success, it’s hard to put into words the way both coaches got their players to buy in after difficult seasons the year before. Watching the effort on the court from the players under each coach was what was special and the reason they were both named coaches of the year.