At the beginning of the season, it was believed the Wildcats (18-11) would be playing in the school's new gym by now. Instead, they will host Loganville in the first round of the Class AAAAA state tournament at 7:30 p.m. in "The Box." And for Cat coach Jason Robinson, neither he nor his players would have it any other way.
"It's big for us. We feel like this thing's got a little magic left in it after all — we're hoping at least one more game for the girls and the boys," Robinson said. "There was talk all year that we were going to get the new gym, but realistically for the guys I can honestly say they would rather play here than in the new gym.
"We feel like everything works out for a reason, and maybe that thing not being ready in time, that's a positive for us right now. At the same time, I feel like it's a disadvantage for some teams coming in. They're used to playing in a big gym. They come in and the walls are a lot closer and the crowd is closer to your bench. It's a little of a hostile environment."
The tournament mentality has so far been a positive for the Wildcats, who endured a stretch of dropping eight of nine in which six of the losses came between two and seven points, with three being decided in overtime. The regular season ended with a four-point loss to eventual region champion New Manchester in a game Robinson felt his team should have been able to pull out.
Then came the Region 5-AAAAA Tournament and things turned around.
VR defeated Rome by 14 on the road, then knocked off the No. 1 seed from their sub-region, Lithia Springs, by seven to get into the tournament and beat Hiram by 11 to get home court in the first round. Aside from a one-point loss to New Manchester on a last-second, desperation 3-pointer, the Wildcats had exorcised some of their — possibly non-existent — demons en route to the No. 2 seed.
"Mistakes were made on our behalf that were causing us to lose games, three, four, five points a game. I don't think the kids were ever down and out. They always stayed positive because they realized, collectively, that we weren't doing what we needed to do to get games won," Robinson said. "The guys see that they got an extra opportunity to make amens for some mistakes we've made. I've made some mistakes, they've made some mistakes and collectively as a group we see it as an opportunity. A lot of folks wish they were in our position right now. They're staying at home without the opportunity to play."
The visiting Red Devils (18-10) don't come into the state playoffs as a traditional No. 3 seed. Loganville possesses a pair of guard that can get the job done, including top scorer Ta'Kein Dixon and then role players that help out to keep opposing teams honest.
"We've got four or five game films on them and they're a good basketball team. They've got two really good guards. They're a lot like us. They're very opportunistic," Robinson said. "The key is going to be stopping the Dixon kid. He's 25 points a game and can explode for 35, 40 points a game. He's the guy that kind of makes them go. He may not score any in the first half and have 25 in the second half. You can never tell. You just cant let him get hot."
The 11 losses for the Wildcats can be a little misleading, too. In a tough region, Villa Rica took some lumps, but found a way to get things going when it mattered.
"We've got 11 losses — eight of those 11 losses are against state playoff teams this year. That means a whole lot there. Two of them are AAAAAA teams and the other six to people within our own region. We feel like if we put a game together, shoot the ball well, we can beat anybody," Robinson said.
The two losses that came from a non-playoff team were Lithia Springs, who the Wildcats knocked out of the state tournament in the region quarterfinals.
Now, back in the state tournament after missing out last season, the Wildcats are looking to make a little history of their own. The last time VR was in state, it won by 10 in the first round before mounting a comeback to win in the second round and reach the elite eight.
From that team, only Josh Lay is left, but he was a freshman then and didn't get much playing time. Now this group is looking to make its own Villa Rica history.
"All these guys remember. Most all these guys were in the gym the first-round game against Creekview and the second-round playoff comeback against Tucker. They all remember, and that's the big thing around here. They're trying to find their niche. Those guys, 2011, made a name for themselves and 2013 want to be something special. That's what they said [Monday]," Robinson said. "They're not only fighting other teams, they're fighting the history of the teams that have come before them."