Though July is far removed from prep basketball season, the area’s top freshman talent will travel Wednesday to Memphis, Tenn. to compete in the 15U/ 9th grade Amatuer Athletic Union national championships.
Starting Thursday, the Emerald Coast Soldiers — under coach Dwayne Kelley — will compete against the nation’s most skilled players in a tournament which drew 108 teams last season.
“This group has been playing together since the fourth grade… that’s very rare in AAU,” Kelley said. “These guys are committed to each other and committed to bringing exposure to Pensacola. And here they are with the opportunity to be a national contender. It’s not gonna be easy… but they play hard, they play together, they are very well in-tune and it works for them.”
After a third-place finish last year, the Emerald Coast Soldiers will aim to take their success a step further this time and bring even more exposure to the Panhandle when they hop on the team bus for Memphis — which is scheduled to leave 2 a.m. Wednesday.
A standout player for the District 1-6A champions Pensacola High, Shawndarius Cowart, said he will need his rest for the tournament, but expects to be wide awake with excitement when the team leaves in the middle of the night.
“We’re a fast team… we get loose balls, we are scrappy and we like to hustle,” Cowart said. “We’ve played together for four to five years. Summer practice has been good. Our coaches have been pushing us to do the right things so we can have a shot at winning.”
To make summer practices at the Salvation Army even more intense, many of the Soldiers are district rivals during the prep season, who compete throughout the year to get better.
Roy Jones III, who played for Pine Forest and clashed multiple times with Cowart and the PHS Tigers last season, enjoys the competitive atmosphere as a member of the Emerald Coast Soldiers.
“We talk about the games against each other… it gets personal sometimes, but we just do it to push everyone to get better,” Jones said. “We know we have to compete against each other during the school year, but we know we have to come together during the summer.”
And while each Soldier may hold a different background during the school year, Dwayne Kelley Jr. — who plays for Washington High during the season — said each player brings something unique to the court.
“We’re all like pieces to a puzzle,” Kelley Jr. said. “We’ve got guys with speed, some shooters, guys who are strong and have size… it’s a combination of everything. We want everyone to get better. Even when we are playing for different teams, we like to guard each other and talk smack. We just want to get better as a team.”
Coach Kelley requires his players to keep a minimum 2.5 GPA, while following a list of rules to maintain strong team discipline.
The team has found little to no issue with the policy, and boasts a team GPA average of 3.5.
“A lot of kids are already very talented without discipline,” Kelley said. “We’ve gotta hold these kids accountable on and off the court. We’ve got multiple guys with above a 3.5 GPA… that’s the story that needs to be told. The true measure of success is our preparation.”
In addition to Thursday’s game at 2 p.m., the Soldiers will play two games Friday to compete pool play. Then Saturday and Sunday the team will compete in bracket play for a potential national championship.
“Thank God for Salvation Army… we can’t ask them for enough,” Kelley said. “Our program can be so much bigger, and it will be so much bigger. We ask the community to get involved. There is a group of young men representing Pensacola with a 3.5 GPA team average and they are winning the right way on the court.”
The Soldiers will face a team from the New England region titled BABC Fresh at 2 p.m. Thursday. To stay up to date with the 15U AAU national championships, go to http://www.TourneyText.com and click on “tournament scores.”
Emerald Coast Soldiers
21- Dwayne Kelley Jr.
7- Roy Jones III
24- Micheal Randolph Jr.
0- Shawndarius Cowart
32- Davonchae Bryant
44- Taylor Williams
11- Eric Milton
1- Eric Goldsmith
33- Hayden Atkinson
Head coach – Dwayne Kelley
Asst. coaches – Micheal Randolph Sr., Kenton Cass, Javares Chandler