Hawks 14-7 (GSC 8-5) vs. Delta State Statesmen 8-12 (GSC 4-7)
Thursday, February 14 • 9 pm • Walter Sillers Coliseum, Cleveland, Miss.
By Jim O'Hara
ROME -- Losing an All-American to an injury is a tough obstacle to overcome for any team in any sport. Losing two of them within a season can be disastrous – unless you happen to play for the Shorter Hawks.
Having lost the services for the year nine games into the season of former NAIA All-American and senior guard C.J. Davis and then overcoming his absence to toss their hat into the Gulf South Conference race, the Hawks have had to dig even deeper over the last two weeks after senior forward and 2012 All-American Anthony Banks went down with an ankle injury.
Yet head coach Chad Warner has seen his staff and the team meet the latest challenge head on, understanding what needs to be done as they await Banks' return and focusing on getting through yet another challenge that has been put before them.
"The more players you lose, the harder you have to play," Warner said as the Hawks, now 14-7 overall and 8-5 in the GSC, try to snap a two-game losing streak – both came at home where Shorter has been tough to beat and was the first time since 2011 the team suffered back-to-back defeats – heading into two conference road games Thursday at Delta State and Saturday at Christian Brothers. "There's no room for errors."
"The guys are staying together," the coach said. "We're just in a tough situation right now."
Overcoming such situations may become the legacy this year's Hawks will leave as they continue to strive to have an impact in the GSC in their first season as an NCAA Division II program despite seeing Davis go down for the season and now having to compete in the tough Gulf South without the inside presence of Banks.
"When you lose two All-Americans," said Warner, "it creates a vacuum not just in points but in leadership as well."
Davis appeared headed toward a stellar season as the point guard was averaging 16.6 points and three assists a game through the Hawks' first nine games, but during a practice session he injured his knee bad enough to require surgery.
"That was a crushing blow to a young man who loves to play and compete," Warner said about losing Davis.
However, Shorter adapted with the firepower they still boasted and won six of their next seven games, the last victory capping a five-game winning streak when the Hawks downed GSC foe Union as Banks connected for a team-high 20 points and nine rebounds.
But in a matter of days after that win, Banks went down with an ankle injury following a team workout and gone with him were some solid numbers he had been putting up as the veteran was on the same successful path he followed last year – he averaged 16.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and hit 60 percent of his shots from the floor in 2012 – by contributing 15.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 19 blocks before he got hurt.
Without Banks in the middle, the Hawks fell to conference leader Alabama-Huntsville, came back to win their next two GSC outings against West Alabama and West Georgia, but came up short in their most recent defeats at the Winthrop-King Centre last week against West Florida and Valdosta State.
Banks tried to test his ankle against West Florida but lasted less than a minute on the court. His return this week is uncertain.
In the meantime, the fewer-in-number Hawks have been working to adapt, with Warner and his staff looking for both starters and reserves to step up their games.
"We're playing the guys who are ready," Warner said. "When you have injuries, no one – those who start or those on the bench – can afford not to be prepared."
Clearly, the list of Hawks who have been ready to up their output has grown over the last few weeks.
In Shorter's last five games, four different players – senior Kenny Leverette, sophomore Dedric Ware, senior Devance Harris and senior Walter Hill – have led team in scoring while Leverette, Harris, Hill and Brandon Pullman have shared the team lead in rebounds.
Hill, an NAIA All-American last year, remains on task as a point producer for the Hawks averaging a team-high 16.2 points a game; Ware, who moved over to the point when Davis went out, averages 13.2 points; and Leverette is also averaging in double digits with a 10.5 mark.
"Kenny continues to give us everything he has," Warner said of Leverette, "and that's what we've got to have from everybody."
Yet the Hawks know that even more critical during this time is concentrating on filling the void left by Banks under the basket – Shorter has been outrebounded by foes in their last four games – and concentrating on their own game to ensure the team delivers a strong finish in its final five games of the regular season.
"We need to focus on the things we can control," said Warner. "It's got to be a collective effort. Everybody has to raise their level."