Bulldogs preparing for final four battle against Highland Home

Published 11:05 am Saturday, February 24, 2024

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The LaFayette Bulldogs are just one win away from advancing to the 2A state championship. First, the Bulldogs must handle business against Highland Home in Birmingham on Monday. 

LaFayette and Highland Home come into the matchup in the state semifinals with similar records. The Bulldogs currently sit at 26-7, and the Flying Squadron is currently 21-7. 

Similar to Gaston, LaFayette’s opponent in the Northeast Regional championship, one of the main things that stands out about Highland Home is the team’s size. 

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The Flying Squadron have five players on their roster that stand at six feet or taller. A few names that stand out for Highland Home are CJ May, Jakaleb Faulk and Greg Tate. 

Those three players bring the most size to the Flying Squadron. Faulk is committed to playing football at Auburn when he graduates in 2025, and May is currently a four-star prospect as a defensive end. Tate stands at six-foot-four and makes big plays above the rim. 

“They’re really big,” LaFayette coach Chase Lewis said about Highland Home. “They’re real big, they’re confident [and] they’re a good team. We’ve just got to kind of slow them down a little bit, protect the inside [and] make sure they don’t get offensive rebounds. They like to run, but we like to run too.” 

Highland Home relies heavily on its athleticism. The Flying Squadron are very physical on the defensive side, and the team will spend most of their time in man defense. 

LaFayette has excelled at times this season when facing teams that play man defense. The Bulldogs have a plethora of speed on the court with Deaundra Vines at point guard and Vaderrian “Tae” Story on the wing. 

“They like to impose their size,” Lewis said. “They want to come put hands on you. They have a really good defense. I can understand why they play man, they can athlete for athlete a little bit with us. I think we’re so confident in our man sets and the things we can do [against] man that it can kind of hurt them.” 

LaFayette’s entire season has largely hinged on three players Vines, Vaderrian and Branaviyun “Bebe” Story. Those three have been the team’s leaders as seniors this season, and they have been who LaFayette has turned to in crunch time. 

Lewis is once again looking for his three playmakers to step up this week as they and Lewis look for their first championship appearance. 

“Those are my senior guys that have been in this fight for years with me,” Lewis said. “For us to even be at this point, where some people doubted that we could even get to this point, that’s what keeps all [four] of us pushing so hard, working so hard, studying so hard together. A lot of people just didn’t believe that we could do it, and we knew we could. With the things I do and the work they put in, I knew we’d be at this point. I just need them to step up, and I think everybody else would raise their level up as well.” 

It is to notice the work that Lewis and the players have done to get the Bulldogs to this point, but LaFayette has also had the help of some great assistant coaches this season. 

Lewis has given his assistant coaches more input than most other teams in the state. Anthony Kyles and Jeremy Ricks have worked with this group of players since early on in their development, and their impact on the team this season is impossible to understate. 

“They’ve been with me since I walked through the door,” Lewis said. “They coached these guys when they were in middle school. Their head coach left when they were freshmen, and I came in so they were the only familiar faces that these kids knew. They’ve had changes with principals and football coaches. Coach Ricks and coach Kyles have been consistent with them their whole life.” 

When the Bulldogs defeated Gaston to advance to the final four on Wednesday, they had to quickly turn around and begin preparing for the next opponent. 

Prior to facing Gaston, LaFayette mostly worked on defense in practice and focused on stopping Mica Merriman. The Bulldogs were limited in what they could do in practice on Thursday, but the team is still focusing on improving on defense heading into the matchup against Highland Home. 

“Coming off that game and going into last night, bodies were a little banged up,” Lewis said. “I knew we could not just go after it hardcore yesterday, so we shot the ball all day. I feel like our kids are really good on offense. We’ll go over the offense as a review. We’re going to work our defense and go over every little spot on the court on our defense like we did yesterday.” 

The Bulldogs have hung their hats on defense all season, and that is largely what has got them to this point. The defensive focus will be different against Highland Home with the focus not largely being on just one player. 

“They’re more focused on the entire team,” Lewis said about Highland Home’s offense. “The Faulk kid stands out because of his name and what he does, but they don’t have a kid like Mica Merriman where you have to worry about where he’s at every second on the floor. They’re going to be big bruisers and they’re going to come hit us. We’ve just got to take that punch and make sure we get back on the other end, rebound and score.” 

Just getting to this game means the world to the Bulldogs and the surrounding community. This is Lewis’ first final-four appearance, and he wants his team to make the most of it.

“It’ll mean everything,” Lewis said about winning on Monday. “There is no game bigger than this game. Just like I told them last game, no bigger game than this game. I’m actually really calm. I just have confidence in my guys. Winning or losing doesn’t define the season that this group has had.” 

LaFayette has battled adversity all season. The Bulldogs lost two starters before the season started, they have had injuries all season and several players have had to play critical minutes that were not expected to play at all this season. Still, LaFayette finds itself just two wins away from championship glory.