Given all the constant movement and overall flux within the high school landscape, it can be difficult for someone who isn’t especially involved in the scene to understand its nuances. What does this mean? Think specifically about the group over at Liberty Heights. Their coaching staff of Mike Wright, Ben Johnson, DaQuan Santos, and Robert Shuler has been around for quite a while, but the program’s popularity is really just starting to hit their apex. The general masses probably don’t remember much about the Cardinals beyond the last calendar year, but this emergence didn’t happen out of nowhere. So, let’s go back a few seasons…
Beginning in the 2017-18 year, few people had ever heard of Liberty Heights and even fewer people were keen on the idea of kids playing sports outside of their designated high school. However, Coach Wright put together an extremely intriguing collection of talent and was among the first guys to welcome “smoke” from any opponent—regardless of win/loss probability. This particular group was headlined by the likes of Michael Wynn, Chris Martin, and Davier Dixon, but had countless college players within the roster. No five-stars, no nationally recognized names, and no real respect amongst the traditionalist population. Conversely, the likes of Combine Academy, Moravian Prep, Piedmont Classical, Word of God, and Bull City Prep either hadn’t formed or weren’t competitive enough to battle with most prep/private schools at the time. Even still, they did a tremendous job of finding success and sending players to the next level.
Then, following the season in May of 2018, tragedy cut through the Liberty Heights’ community with the loss of James “Jamo” Hampton. The entire state came together and grieved as one, putting aside any on-court disdain or off-court politics for the bigger picture. In honoring Hampton, Coach Wright and his newly cemented roster would dedicate each contest to their former teammate. This obstacle was clearly bigger than any game. It was ultimately up to the coaching staff to corral their squad led by Juwan Gary, Idrissa Bivens, DeAnte Petree, and Shayne Scruggs (who was sidelined for most of the season), and push forward. Similar to the previous season, the Cardinals played a brutal schedule, progressively got better throughout the months, and put a vast majority of their team into the collegiate ranks.
In preparation for the 2019-20 year, everyone now quietly had their own expectations for Coach Wright and company. The aforementioned lack of prep schools was no longer, as both Combine and Moravian Prep were rapidly following in Liberty Heights’ footsteps and subsequently became two of the premier teams across the state. However, this had no real barring on Wright’s ability to put together a must-see team for college coaches of all levels. With an extremely balanced assortment of guys like Jemal Davis, Dominique Davidson, Kam Edwards, Kahari Rogers, Antonee Abraham, and even a late-season addition of London Johnson (who has since emerged as one of the nation’s top players during his time in Georgia), this was arguably their best team ever. They went on to finish third in our first edition of the Hoopstate Championship
That notion wouldn’t last long, as the very next group would immediately surpass all prior successes and achievements. The addition of Jonas Aidoo would prove to be the most significant, which should’ve been obvious to anyone who paid attention before his reclassification, but they also brought in PJ Edwards, Isaac Farah, Elijah Jamison, and Terrence Johnson. Add in a returning piece like Jeremy Baker, and this team was now their most impressive group. Not only was it reflected in their sheer talent, win totals, and through advancing to the next level, but they also improved and narrowly fell in the Hoopstate Championship to Combine Academy.
Now, it’s almost bizarre to try and compare Liberty Heights’ earlier teams to their current star-studded cast. Between Ezra Ausar, Cinque Lemon, Jabare Perry, Jalen McDonald, Ayden Ince, Ryan Prather Jr., Eric Morgan Jr., Silas Demary Jr., Charles McClenahan Jr., and a returning Jamison, Coach Wright should easily surpass any of his previous milestones for putting players into college. The entire roster is visibly littered with an abundance of talent for all types of scholarship-level coaches. Though that would probably be enough, they’ve actually added an extremely talented varsity group as well. Coach AJ Jones has taken the grouping of Tajuan Simpkins, Takai Simpkins, Kaleb Hedgepath, Chas Stinson, Yohan Guttierez, Jabez Worthington, Dominick Nelson, Josiah Dow, David Wilkerson, and Joel Torres, and made them into a top-tier team in the state. Above all else, Coach Wright has put his heart and soul into these kids—out of pure selflessness. There is no money or notoriety to be gained, and that’s fine, because the transition from being an underdog to experiencing copious amounts of success (specifically for his players) is what ultimately makes it worthwhile for Wright and his staff.