The 2019-20 Walton Raiders finished with a winning season, reached the region championship, and made the state playoffs yet again in Coach Abney’s third season. The boys did face adversity, but they pushed through, breaking dry spells and Walton Basketball records.
The boys opened the season very strong, rushing out to a 9-2 start. They played smash mouth basketball, attacking the basket, pushing the action in transition, and playing a tight man-to-man defense. One of the keys to attacking the basket was keeping defenders backpedaling and making them match their speed, turning games into track meets rather than basketball games. The leads would often balloon so high that the game would be in hand by halftime. Their most lopsided margin of victory was a 77-36 win over Dunwoody early in the year, apparent from the opening tip that the Wildcats were no match for the Raiders.
After Christmas break, many teams learned to adjust to the fast style of play and, at the start of region play, the Raiders were 10-8. The team played in one of the toughest regions in the state this year, deep with well-coached teams and star players. With their backs against the wall, the Raiders had to create a new adaptable offensive strategy. Though the team has a deep arsenal of shooters, it was rare that the Raiders operated in space through their first 18, where they often ran pick and rolls to get to the basket. The Raiders adapted to a motion offense, with less screens and more passing, cutting, and shooting from beyond the arc. Even in a very tough region where no games could be taken off, the Raiders split the region games, going 5-5. Two of the biggest challenges through the regular season were the Cherokee Warriors and the Etowah Eagles, who handed the Raiders four of their regular season region losses. Ahead of the region tournament, the Raiders knew that both their season and their team would be tested.
The Raider run in the region tournament stands out as a remarkable moment in this school year for the Walton community. In the first region tournament game hosted at Walton in decades, the Raiders faced off against the Lassiter Trojans. In front of a packed house, the Raiders came out firing, scoring the first 24 points of the game and silencing the Trojan opposition. It was the newfound shooting success of the Raiders that took them out to this start, as they made six 3 pointers within minutes of the tipoff. From there the Raiders kept their foot on the gas pedal, smothering the Trojans on defense and making it tough to get any shot. The Raiders walked away victorious, 64-44, and clinched their third straight state playoff berth under Coach Abney.
The Raiders then matched up with the Etowah Eagles in the region semifinals two days later. With nerves at an all-time high, Coach Abney told the team in the locker room before the game, “It is very hard to beat a team three times in this sport. In that Etowah locker room, that coach is having to convince them that they can win this game, that they are more talented then you. I don’t think they can.” In a back and forth defensive game that had several hundred fans on their feet, the game came down to just a few plays. With the score tied at 34, the Raiders had the ball. They came down the court and took an open jump shot, but missed. However, the 6’5” freshman Pearce Spurlin picked that moment to come down the lane and soar in for the rebound, wrestling the ball away from a Etowah defender and scoring the go ahead layup. The Eagles did not go down without a fight, scoring the next two baskets to give them a two-point lead with just seconds left. Had it not been for the heroics of Luka Avaliani, the Eagles would have found themselves in the region championship. Avaliani got the ball with just 8 seconds left, driving the lane and finishing with a layup that would send the game into overtime. It was there that the Raiders won the game and sent themselves to their first region championship in over ten years and clinched their first home state playoff games in decades. Despite losing in the region championship to the Cherokee Warriors, the Raiders delivered one of the most exciting runs in Walton Athletics this year.
The Raiders had many standouts on the court this year that lead them to success, beginning with the 1st team all-region point guard Luka Avaliani. Luka, named Team MVP, took a big step from his sophomore season to his junior season, seeing the court much better and evolving as a distributor of the ball. Luka also showed his passion for the game and willingness to improve as, throughout the year, he corrected missteps and, in the end, became a force for other teams. Avaliani was also the primary scorer for the Raiders in crunch time, making multiple clutch shots, including a buzzer beating game winner vs. Hillgrove.
David Sickles played his last season in a Walton basketball uniform this year and stepped up in several ways. Early in his career, David cracked the varsity roster, getting playing time as a freshman. David has always been a fun, confident, fan favorite sharpshooter, but this year he took accountability as the team leader in the locker room. Many of his teammates looked up to him and said that the season would not be the same without him. David brought an energy in the huddle and in the locker room, on the offensive and defensive ends, that sparked the whole team. His highlight of the season was when he clinched the game for the Raiders at the free throw line vs. Etowah in overtime to send the Raiders to the region championship.
Cole Morris was another senior for the Raiders this year who took massive steps from his junior year. In his first full year as a starter, Morris was a dominant force down low, swatting away shots, grabbing rebounds, and yes, even dunking over a Lassiter Trojan or two. The team often looked to force the ball into Cole, who would either take it up, face up for a jump shot, or even swing the ball out to the perimeter. Morris also helped mentor two young big men this year, Jonathon Awolyee and Pearce Spurlin, who both say that Cole helped them improve this year on the court as players.
Forward Toni Adenupe also finished his career for the Raiders this year. The high-flying forward has always been fun to watch and saved his best for last, especially in the post-season tournament. It was apparent at times this year that no one on the court was as quick or strong as Adneupe, and he got to the lane whenever he wanted. More importantly, Toni bought into the system, diving on loose balls and being one of the more vocal players on defense. Toni has taken huge steps forward in his game since his freshman year and says that Coach Abney helped him with that: “He helped me realize what hard work is, always pushing for more, trying to get me to be my best.”
Carson Adler and Dylan Pumpian distinguished themselves this year. Carson earned significant playing time this year, as he became an all-around player: shooting, driving, defending, and much more. He was the energizer for the team this year, always making a big shot when needed, and not afraid to shoot an arrow in the face of an opposing student section. Dylan was instrumental in the change this year for the Raiders, becoming one of the Raiders primary scoring options and proving his offensive arsenal at the basket, midrange, and beyond the arc.
With the season at its end, the Walton community thanks David, Cole, and Toni for their hard work and dedication to Walton Basketball. And thank you to the 2019-2020 Raiders, a team that has made its mark on Raider Basketball history.