Chargers basketball is back and ready to take the court. After waiting nearly three months to tip off their regular season, the time arrives on Tuesday.
Georgia Highlands College will begin its 2021 season this coming Tuesday against Middle Georgia Prep at 7 p.m.
“I really like this team. I really think they have the ‘it’ factor and something special,” Chargers head coach JJ Merritt said in a phone interview. “I think we’ve got quickness, I think we got size, I think we have athleticism, I think we have speed. I’m just very excited because I think these guys can be very special.”
Merritt said the Chargers have not played another team or any 5-on-5 competition in almost two months. That, combined with the winter break from Dec. 11-Jan. 4 and many gymnasiums in the area being closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, set the team back in terms of their fitness.
“We press for 40 minutes, so our guys have to be in the best shape,” Merritt said. “That was probably the biggest challenge on how hard to push them when you come back because once you come back, three weeks later, you’re playing games. We’re still trying to get into the shape we were in. I think they’re progressing well.”
Merritt said his roster is a more veteran one for junior colleges, featuring several prep-school, junior-college and Division I transfers.
One of the top junior college basketball players, Langston Wilson, signed with the University of Alabama. Cahiem Brown, an All-American freshman from last season, also returns to the Chargers. Brown signed with Norfolk State.
“I had a good group of five guys that I’m very familiar with to come back to mix in with these other eight guys we brought in,” Merritt said. “Their IQ for the game is unbelievable. The pace that we were able to put things in this year ... switching up defenses, reading when to slip, when to set a screen, when to curl off screens, these guys already had that ingrained in them.”
After serving as an assistant coach for six seasons, Merritt stepped into the head coaching role for the 2019-20 campaign and led the Chargers to a 24-8 record. Merritt said he took away some lessons from his first season at the helm of the program.
“My role changed and guys had to see me in a different light. In the beginning, that was the challenge but I think guys responded well, showed me a lot of respect, played their tails off,” Merritt said. “For my first year staying humble, I’m very proud of those guys and I think we did something great and something to build upon going into this year.”
“Toughness, discipline. Those are two of the main things I’ve harped on this year. Being able to fight through any adversity, staying together no matter what. We are all in this together,” Merritt continued. “We don’t do things outside of character. We stay within ourselves and you’re going to be held accountable for everything. I have to be ‘the law.’ That’s ... two of the things I learned from last year that I’ve taken to heart and brought into this year.”
“It was just going at a different pace,” Merritt said. “You want your teams to peak at different times and you want them to learn and progress. We don’t want them to get bogged down. Just trying to keep them in a positive mindset.”
Georgia Highlands College will have home attendance capped at 249, while temperature checks at the door, masks and social distancing will be required.
Merritt is issuing a challenge to the community to come out and support both the Chargers and Lady Chargers this season.
“It’s a challenging year for everybody and I know the support from the community can go a long way with these guys and myself,” Merritt said. “I just challenge the community to come out and really show these guys support. I know we have limited access ... but let’s reach that goal every game.”