Calera aims to follow up historic season with another successful year

Published 10:40 am Thursday, February 1, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

Last year was a historic season for the Calera Eagles as they reached their first Final 4 in school history for any sport. Now, the perennial underdogs are one of the favorites in Class 6A, and there’s nowhere to hide now.

But to Blas Herrera and the Eagles players, there’s nowhere else they’d rather be than in the spotlight.

“We’ve been throughout the years looked at as underdogs,” Herrera said. “It’s a great feeling now knowing that we made the Final 4 and now we’re up there to compete with other teams. It just gives us some pride.”

Calera’s breakout success came during Landon Gaskins’ first season as the Eagles coach. He won Shelby County Coach of the Year while, by his own admission, learning on the fly.

With a full offseason under his belt, Gaskins is excited to get back to work to help Calera improve on its success.

“It’s obviously a little easier,” Gaskins said. “Last year was a big learning curve for me personally. I’ve been around the game forever, but as a coach and a head coach, there’s obviously a big learning curve there, but I’m excited. I feel like I’ve got my feet under me, taking all the experience from last year and the things we did to this year and we’re going to see how it plays out.”

Gaskins isn’t the only key piece returning from 2023’s Final 4 team. Seven of the 11 Eagles starters are back for another run, including seven seniors.

With so many players coming back, Gaskins and the team prepared last season for this moment by trying to get players to play in late-season games who he anticipated would have a bigger role in 2024. He also hopes that the seniors can step up in their final season.

“I think there’s not a single guy in our roster this year that didn’t at least get some varsity experience, so just having that in our back pocket, knowing what it’s like to be there, it’s great experience for everybody there,” Gaskins said.

For one of those seniors, Elijah Garrison, that mentality starts with Gaskins. He believes his arrival has helped the Eagles grow closer and that they can now refine the chemistry they already have, especially since they will keep the same formation and grow within it.

“The best part about playing coach Gaskins is the team mentality that he brings,” Garrison said. “He wants everybody on the team to really feel like we can build each other up and we can help each other get better.

“He brings a lot of team chemistry. A lot of us have played together for years and so we already know each other pretty well and he just helps fine-tune that and make it a well-balanced team.”

Senior Nduka Osanu agrees and says that having a coach who is passionate for their school has helped grow their love for the sport.

“A bad coach can make you not like your sport anymore, so just having him taking it serious and really making sure we’re ready for the season is good,” Osanu said.

Another one of the next steps that Gaskins has taken is the implementation of film and using programs like Hudl to track statistics and study tactics.

Not only does Garrison believe that the film sessions help the team prepare for their next test, he also says that they help him and his teammates improve themselves.

“It allows us to target like specific things a lot better than just looking at the games overall,” Garrison said. “You can look at individual performances. You can look at pass strings, how many passes are we having together? That’s one thing we’ve been focusing on is just moving the ball around to better what we had last year, just those specific details that we wouldn’t have known otherwise allows us to be a lot more practical in practice.”

Senior TJ Hernandez-Sanchez says that studying their tape helps them avoid making the same mistake twice.

“(We’re) just looking at the mistakes we made last year and improving to not commit those same mistakes this year,” Hernandez-Sanchez said.

While last year’s success is still fresh in Calera’s mind, Gaskins knows that 2023 is over and the calendar now reads 2024, and with that comes a new squad.

He just hopes his team gives all of the effort that they can to go as far as they possibly can.

“Personally, as a coach, I want to feel like we left everything out there the entire season,” Gaskins said. “Besides the record, besides how far we make it in playoffs, if we’re fortunate enough to make it there, it’s feeling like we did everything we could as this team, this year. Not focusing on the team last year–this is a new window.”

Just how far can this team go? If you ask the players, they want to shoot even higher than the Final 4 and etch their names into Calera High School lore.

“I’d love to bring a little bit of pride to our school, be the best sports team there is,” Garrison said.

“Obviously last year our team made history, but we’d like to make history once again and hopefully make it to the final,” Herrera said.