COVINGTON - The Newton boys basketball team was off to a stellar season before injuries caused it to falter at the end.
The Rams started the season 16-4 before dropping five of their last six after losing senior leaders Montrell Grimes and Sean Monk to finish at 17-9.
"The last two or three games we were really handicapped. That really hurt our momentum at the end. If we hadn't had that happen, I feel pretty confident we would've done better in the end," Newton coach Rick Rasmussen said. "In the end, when they got hurt at the same time, we kind of lost our identity. It really hurts without your emotional and physical leaders.
"I feel that the timing of the injuries was bad. If we would've had those earlier in the year, we might have been able to overcome it. We might have made state, might have had a few more wins."
But even if Monk and Grimes were healthy, there's no way to say that the outcome would have been different in their final four games of the season.
Newton's last four games were against M.L. King, who was the No. 6-ranked team in Class AAAAA, Stephenson, which advanced to the Elite Eight, and two games against Redan - one at Redan and one at Stephenson in the playoffs.
"We weren't playing cupcakes, we were playing some of the best teams in the state. Redan had first team all-stater Kenny Hall who's 6-9 and two 6-6 players. We have a 6-1 center, sophomore Tevin Bradley. I think we did a very good job with what we had," Rasmussen said. "I was disappointed to lose to Redan. They had a pretty good home-court advantage playing at Stephenson."
This is only the third time in the last 10 years that Newton has failed to make it to the playoffs and not reach the 20-win plateau.
"The main goal we always have is to do the best we can with what we got. We've had a habit of going to the playoffs and winning 20 games, but it's not always in the cards," Rasmussen said.
The Rams also placed third in the Holiday Hoopfest in Cartersville, advancing to the semifinals in that event for the fifth straight season. They also swept county rival Eastside and split with Alcovy.
But perhaps the biggest accomplishment of Newton's season was doing what no one else had done, beating Douglass in Atlanta.
At the time of Newton's 45-42 win, the Astros were the No. 4 team in the state.
"We beat them 45-42 on a last-second 3-pointer by Sean. Jamon (Hawkins) made a game-winning steal then Sean hit the shot at the buzzer," Rasmussen said. "At the time they were undefeated in the region at 7-0. We were the only team in our region to win at Douglass this year, that may have been their only loss at home. In their first home game in the playoffs, they almost scored 100 points and we held them to 42."
Hawkins paced the team in scoring, averaging 15 points per game.
"One of the best things we had this year was really good chemistry and great attitudes. The kids worked well together and worked hard," Rasmussen said. "Montrell and Sean were our starting seniors and named co-MVPs. Jamon, statistically, was our best player. He was named our best defensive player and will be one of our leaders next year as a senior."
Rasmussen said that considering what they did with only one returning starter, Monk, the Rams should be back where they belong next year with hopefully another 20-win season and a trip to the Class AAAAA playoffs.
"We're hungry. The kids that are returning want to get back to state and do even better," Rasmussen said. "We'd like to go back again and we don't want to wait long."
Manny Fils can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.