By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
EVANS — Disappointment should fade and optimism will take the basketball court for Effingham County next season.
The Rebels finished a crazy 2020-21 season with a 67-64 heartbreaking loss to fourth-ranked Evans in the first round of the Class AAAAAA state tournament on Feb. 24.
ECHS (18-8) built a 14-point lead with 5:40 to go with a group that will return intact next season -- that’s the optimistic part that should fuel summer workouts and make the Rebels among the preseason region favorites.
And, hopefully, the nightmare of Evans’ run to ruin dreams of a second-round game becomes a lesson of the past.
“It’s a tough loss, but you can’t dwell on it,” Rebels sophomore forward Keion Wallace said. “You have to come back next year that much harder.”
Brothers Keion and Khiry Wallace will be the foundation. Keion was named co-player of the year in the region after averaging about 16 points and eight rebounds per game. Khiry, a junior guard, was a first-team, All-Region 2-AAAAAA pick.
Junior point guard Caleb Williams, who showed constant improvement throughout the season, was the region’s defensive player of the year.
Sophomores Rashad Scott and Ashley Thompson and junior Timmy Brown all claimed region honors as well.
Jordan Goldwire, a 6-foot-4 freshman, will be counted on for some sorely needed inside help.
It’s a strong returning nucleus for coach Jake Darling to mold. Two years ago, ECHS slumped to eight wins. Last season, it improved to 17 and, despite losing four seniors from the team’s top seven players, rose another notch to 18 this season.
“Through the highs and lows of a season, this has been a fun year,” Darling said. “To see these guys grow and get to the point we got to tonight and bounce back from the region tournament. We definitely played much better tonight.”
The Rebels cleared a lot of hurdles during the 2020-21 season. Concerns about COVID-19 limited summer workouts. At midseason, Khiry Wallace suffered an elbow injury and missed about a month.
Scott stepped up offensively and greater attention to team defense lessened the loss. ECHS beat 17-9 Brunswick and 14-8 Glynn Academy back-to-back during a key week and when Wallace returned, the Rebels displayed invigorated firepower while posting a season-high 80 points in a win over Richmond Hill.
ECHS took a seven-game winning streak — its longest in six years — into the region Final Four.
“The fact that we had a 14-point lead on a senior-led team that was No. 4 in the state shows we can compete at that level,” Darling said. “Richmond Hill was a top 10 team. We beat Brunswick twice. We’re still (18-1) Swainsboro’s only loss.
“I’m proud of our guys, proud of their effort. We’ll use (the Evans loss) as momentum for next year. We’ll get in the gym in the offseason and really see these guys grow. I thought they did a great job growing throughout this season.”