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Porter-Gaud's "Junkyard Dogs" set aim on third consecutive title

Charleston – A mountain of man stands near midcourt shouting instructions with his booming voice while putting his two-time defending state SCISA Class AAA champions through a rare Saturday workout.

The Porter-Gaud boys basketball team were victims of the snow storm that struck the Lowcountry of South Carolina on January 3rd, forcing the postponement of three games, as well as practices. Head coach John Pearson, or “JP” as he is known to his players, saw some rustiness from the layoff.

Pearson hated to see the bad weather slow the progress of his team. The Cyclones had just won the Rotary Roundball Classic in impressive fashion, improving to 12-2 on the season.

“I hate it because we were playing pretty well and this is a game of momentum,” said Pearson, who was a part of three straight championship teams as an assistant coach at the school from 2003-05. “But, I don’t worry too much because a lot of the teams we play coming up in our region are in the same situation. We just have to work a little harder to get it back.”

Fortunately, for Pearson, he has a mature, veteran squad that includes eight seniors and as a group have been through the wars together. The team is led by two seniors and a junior, all three Division I prospects who have started on each of the last two state championship teams.

As you might expect, team chemistry is strong.

“I definitely think one of the strengths of our game is the chemistry that we have,” says 6-10 senior post man Jake Lanford, a Yale signee. “A lot of these guys, we’ve played together in the same system for a lot of years. A lot of us also play on the same AAU team and that helps us a lot. We just love the game and we play well together.”

Lanford does a lot of the dirty work inside, averaging 11 points and 10 rebounds per game while also being a defensive force near the rim.

“We know a target is on our back and we realize that nothing is given to us,” he said. “We have to approach every day the same way. We know in order to reach our goals we have to prepare for every game and be ready to play. We have to bring the same mentality to every day of practice and see where it takes us.”

If not for a guy named Zion Williamson of Spartanburg Day, Porter-Gaud shooting guard Aaron Nesmith would be considered the best player in SCISA. Nesmith, who signed with Vanderbilt in November, averages 22 points per game while taking in about five rebounds.

Nesmith, who came to Porter-Gaud for academics as a fifth-grader and only started playing basketball in the eighth-grade, has developed into a 6-6 shooting star. But, he takes his leadership role even more seriously.

“I understand my role as a leader on this team and I work hard to make sure I am doing the things I need to be doing to set a good example,” Nesmith said. “I have set individual goals for myself this season and one of those goals is to be the best leader I can be. We have a lot of talented underclassmen on this team. I want to let them see that I will work and play as hard as I can to help us achieve our team goals. Hopefully that sticks with them once I am gone.”

One of the top underclassmen in the country runs the point for the Cyclones. Junior Josiah James, a 6-7 floor general with outstanding court awareness and an uncanny passing ability, already has more than 20 Division I offers. He has been a starter at Porter-Gaud since the eighth grade.

James does a lot of everything on the floor. He averages 13 points per game but grabs nearly six rebounds and dishes out about seven assists per game. His incredible length also makes him a difficult handle defensively.

“As a point guard, I feel like my job to make sure everyone is able to play to their strengths,” James said. “I am a piece of the big puzzle and we all try to feed off each other and bring out the best in each other.”

Two other seniors, guard Jack Nutley and forward Harrison Whatley, are contributing solid numbers as well. Both have overcome injuries that limited their playing time in recent years and make this year’s team even more difficult to guard.

“Jack is a pure shooter and can really light it up from outside while Harrison is a guy that can play inside or step out and shoot the ball,” Pearson said. “It’s great to see them healthy and able to play the way we knew they could play. They’re a big part of our success.”

Pearson uses his bench early and often in most games and says several backups could easily start on other teams.

As incredible as the chemistry and depth is this season, Pearson says the one thing that makes this a fun team to coach is the unselfishness of every player on the roster.

“This is the best team we’ve had, top to bottom,” Pearson says. “This team has more depth and talent than any of the previous teams. What we also have is more tough-minded guys that can play through situations.

“Sometimes with talented teams there are some problems around the edges but this group is unbelievable in their care for each other. There are no egos, and that cannot be said for most teams that have the level of prospects that we have here. Their unselfishness is what impresses me the most. They want success for each other. They just want to win. It’s a really cool team to coach.”

Pearson played college basketball at the College of Charleston for legendary coach John Kresse. He came to Porter-Gaud in 1990 and began learning under another legend, Randy Clark. Clark won more than 400 games at Porter-Gaud and retired in 2006. Pearson, who had also been coaching girls basketball while assisting Clark, winning a state title in 2005, was the obvious choice as Clark’s replacement.

“Pretty much everything I am and how I coach is directly from what I learned under coach Kresse and coach Clark,” said Pearson, a graduate of Lugoff-Elgin High School. “Coach Kresse was the best teacher I ever had. His X’s and O’s, his time management and preparation.

“Coach Clark was huge on culture. He was unbelievable in getting me to recognize that every kid has a different motivation. I had to learn that it was not my individual motivation that was going to drive these kids, it was their motivation. Every kid is different and you have to be able to tap into what motivates each kid to get them to succeed.”

Every successful sports program is built on a commitment to a few staple ideas. At Porter-Gaud, those staples do not evolve around offensive or defensive philosophies but more so on the idea of sacrifice and commitment to excellence.

“To be in this program you have to be willing to sacrifice your time, to miss out on a few things, in order to better yourself and your teammates,” Pearson said. “Number two, you must take responsibility to get your work done in the classroom as well as on the basketball floor. You have to be relentless in both areas. We call it the “Junkyard Dog” attitude. We’re going to attack every day with a competitive attitude in everything we do. We may not be Thoroughbreds but we want every team that we play to know that we are going to show up and compete. Win, lose or draw, we are going to compete. That goes for the classroom as well as basketball.”

As the Cyclones prepare for the stretch drive of their chase for a third consecutive title, they realize teams like Cardinal-Newman, Hammond, Pinewood Prep and First Baptist will present major challenges ahead. But each and every player, as well as their coach, embrace the competition.

“We know we’re not unbeatable,” Lanford said. “We have to play well and play with focus. When we play with the right focus, we know we’re a pretty good team. We have great senior leadership and that helps a lot.”

Adds Nesmith, “I would say we have a bullseye on our back but the way we look at it, just take one at a time and work to get better everyday. The goal is to win another championship so that’s all we look at. We just focus on being the best we can be. Regardless of the opponent, we want to bring our best. We want to be junkyard dogs.”

For Pearson, being a part of two championship three-peats at one school would be a special accomplishment. But, just as he preaches to his team daily, he does not look too far ahead. In the end, how his team performs under the brightest of lights will determine the ending.

“Sure, winning it again is a goal. I would not be honest if I said otherwise,” Pearson said. “For me, the thing is, my hope is that we are the best we can be at the right time. When the playoffs start, if we can be our very best, we have a chance. If we are at our best and we lose, so be it. We know our capabilities and we know it’s all in front of us. We have to make sure we are peaking at the right time.”

© 2017 High School Sports Report

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