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March 15, 2014

2014 ALL-STATE BASKETBALL TEAM: Cullman’s Schaffer, Cold Springs’ Chambers secure 1st-team status

CULLMAN — It just so happens the two best boys basketball players in Cullman County this season are pretty good friends.

In fact, it’d be OK to call Cullman’s Lawson Schaffer and Cold Springs’ Triston Chambers buddies, or even bros, since they met last year while playing pick-up games at the Aquatic Center.

To date, the two have yet to officially face off on a high school court, and, better yet, don’t have to compete for one of the same top-five spots on their respective All-State squads. That last nugget worked out wonderfully for both boys, who were each bestowed with first-team status when the Alabama Sports Writers Association released its annual hoops honors late Saturday night.

Schaffer, a junior, made his way into the mix in a strong Class 5A field, while Chambers, a sophomore, could not be excluded from the 2A discussion.

At first glance, Schaffer didn’t strike Chambers as the kind of kid who was very quick off the bounce. However, it wasn’t long before the Eagles’ shining star found out just how deceiving looks could be when it came to his Bearcat counterpart.

“Really, every time I’ve played against Lawson, he’s so hard to catch up on. He’s so crafty,” Chambers said. “He’s just so good at everything he can do. You don’t know what he can hurt you with, and you’ve almost got to pick your poison and hope he misses.

“You can’t look at him as anything but really good.”

Think this is a one-sided relationship where Schaffer doesn’t also have nice things to say about his fellow prize-winning pal?

Of course not.

He went so far to say Chambers is “probably one of the most athletic guys I’ve ever seen in flight.”

“He’s got great length on him. His shot is perfect. He rises very high, has great form and knows the game of basketball very well,” Schaffer said. “He just plays with great IQ, and you can tell he plays a lot and plays against good competition.”

There aren’t many areas where either player has a considerable edge over the other — except for the height department. Schaffer utilizes every bit of his 6-foot frame, while Chambers has a natural-born basketball body that likely hasn’t topped out at its current stature of 6-foot-2.

Jealous wouldn’t be the right word to describe Schaffer, but that’s not to say he’d mind having his friend’s hops.

“I wish I was able to dunk my sophomore year, my freshman year, most definitely,” the junior jokester said with a laugh. “But it’s just the way God blessed us, so I guess I’ve just got to take it with a grain of salt.”

Schaffer was the main piece of the engine that made Cullman’s “Fast32” machine run so smoothly. Using a deadly outside attack and a nose for finishing around the basket, the speedster led the Cats in scoring (21 points per game), assists (7.2 per game), rebounds (six per game) and steals (4.1 per game/130 total).

Schaffer’s season-high offensive output was 41 points in an 111-80 win over Holly Pond. The jaw-dropping performance was punctuated by a 6-of-6 clip from 3-point land during an extremely short stretch in the fourth quarter.

The kicker for Schaffer’s All-State case was likely his 25-point display in a 58-50 regional semifinal loss to Parker, the same Thundering Herd that didn’t allow much more than 25 points total to teams like No. 3 Athens and No. 1 Faith Academy en route to the state title.

Including his seven dimes and four boards in the contest, Schaffer was an easy choice for the 5A All-Northwest Regional Tournament Team.

Coach Bobby Meyer, whose squad went 24-8 despite a tricky in-state schedule, had the highest of praise for the club that eliminated Cullman and, in turn, for the kid who torched them for more points than any other player during the postseason.

“To me, Parker is not only the best 5A team, I think they’re the top basketball team defensively in the state without a doubt,” Meyer said. “For him to score 25 points says a lot about his game and the type of player he is.

“When you go out like Lawson and compete and it looks effortless, you know he’s a top-level player.”

The loss of a Chayse Elliott can be enough to leave any program in ruins — just not if you’ve got Chambers in your back pocket.

With Elliott at UAH, center stage at Cold Springs this season belonged to the sophomore — and he didn’t disappoint.

Chambers compiled his season-best stat-line in only the third contest of the campaign, tickling the twine on all 18 of his free-throw attempts as part of a 43-point outburst. Along the way, he helped the Eagles reel in the West Point Christmas Tournament title, their first county tourney crown since 2008 and their fifth consecutive regional appearance, not to mention an undefeated mark inside the friendly confines of Jesse George Gymnasium.

By the time all was said and done — cardiac Cold Springs, aka the comeback kids of Cullman County, finished 22-10 after bowing out with a 59-52 loss to Tanner — Chambers polished off a well-balance rèsumè with 23.5 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game and 3.7 assists per game, as well as 74 and 46 total steals and blocks, respectively.

He chipped in 26 points, eight boards and three steals against the Rattlers to land on the 2A All-Northwest Regional Tournament Team. That brings Chambers’ career accumulation to 1,275 points — and he still has two years to pile on more than any other player in Cullman County history.

First-year Eagle coach Tim Willoughby, for one, doesn’t hide his elation concerning that last fact.

“He’s obviously blessed with great ability, and everybody can see that. But I’ve coached a long, long time, and I don’t just say this: Triston is the most driven player I’ve ever coached,” Willoughby said. “And I’ve coached some good basketball players and guys who loved it, but he works at it every day. Nobody has to make him. Nobody has to force him.

“Triston’s the kind of player who will never be satisfied. To himself, he’ll never be good enough. There’s always something else to do. That’s what makes him the player he is.”

Willoughby had already heard all the buzz surrounding Chambers before returning to his alma mater for the first time since 1993. He stayed on the safe side of skepticism during practice but couldn’t help but convert to a believer once the season was actually under way.

“The bigger the game, the better his performance,” the coach said. “You forget he’s a 16-year-old 10th grader. But he doesn’t have a 16-year-old body and once the game starts, he’s not a 16-year-old boy out there. He plays like a man.”

Three other locals — Holly Pond’s Meg Gambrill and Colby Adams (3A), as well as Cullman’s Baylee Johnson (5A) cemented their standing as one of the top-10 players in their respective classes with second-team accolades. The Lady Broncos’ Rachel Finley (3A), Hanceville’s Brontae Harris (3A) and Cold Springs’ Haley Freeman (2A) were all honorable mentions.

Gambrill was an all-around whiz on an exceptionally balanced Green and White squad that set the school record for wins (32) and advanced to the state title tilt for the second year in a row. The junior point guard did a little bit of everything, averaging a hefty 15 points per game to go along with 4.3 rebounds and assists a night. Just for good measure, Gambrill used her go-go gadget arms to corral 120 steals.

Adams capped off his prep career the same way he spent most of it — swishing 3’s. The senior tried his best to will Holly Pond to a second straight regional championship by fighting tooth and nail for 25 of his team-high 35 points and four treys in the fourth quarter of an 82-72 loss to Saks. Adams took over as the school’s all-time greatest 3-pointer shooter from his brother, Drew, earlier in the season. He finished the campaign with 19.9 points per game, 4.4 rebounds per game and 88 steals.

There’s no girl in Cullman County as capable of ripping the cords as the Lady Bearcats’ Johnson. Give the junior an inch, and she’ll take it to light up the scoreboard from downtown or penetrate the lane for floaters and hard-earned points.

Johnson, who uncorked a career-high 43 points in a runaway win over Dora, had her best season to date with 22.3 points per game and 98 steals for Cullman, which reached the regional stage for the third time in the past four seasons.

Coach Jonathan Hayes might want to consider taking up a second job as a psychic. He called Johnson’s All-State fate months ago.

“I don’t know all that goes into deciding what an All-State guard is, but I think she is as deserving as anyone in the state,” Hayes told The Times in early January.

Finley flexed her muscles both inside and out all season but played perhaps the best basketball of her prep career in four of Holly Pond’s final five games. The senior scored a team-high 21 points in a sub-regional triumph over No. 6 Pisgah, a career-high 27 in a Northeast Regional Tournament MVP performance, 16 in a state-semi rout of No. 7 Trinity and 15 in the championship rematch versus top-ranked Lauderdale County. Finley wasn’t far behind Gambrill with 12.8 points per game but led the Lady Broncos with 6.1 boards a contest.

Be it football or basketball, Harris is no stranger to All-State accolades. The junior’s honorable mention hoops pick, his second in the past three years, comes 12 months after a second-team season. Harris had the most complete cast of his prep career around him this winter but was still able to pick his spots to shine in the spotlight. The sharpshooter averaged an even 18 points per game and 4.2 assists a night for Hanceville, which ended the campaign 23-8. Harris was named to the 3A All-Northwest Regional Tournament Team after scoring 14 points in a semi against Colbert County.

If Tammy West would’ve asked Haley Freeman to play the point another year, the senior wouldn’t have asked a single question. Still, she looked a lot more comfortable back out on the wing in her send-off, letting Emme Willoughby facilitate the offense and knocking down 3’s as needed. Freeman, the most consistent player of Cold Springs’ three-headed monster this season, was a more than solid point scorer (12.4 per game), rebounder (6.1), downtown threat (75 successful treys) and never backed down in the clutch. She was a key piece of the puzzle for the Lady Eagles (27-7), who went perfect in area play for the eighth straight slate and advanced to regionals for the 11th time in a row.

% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at robk@cullmantimes.com.

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