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High School Sports

March 12, 2014

BOYS' BASKETBALL: Bulldog seniors prove skeptics wrong

Trio has been huge for New Albany in 2013-14

NEW ALBANY — Prior to the start of the 2013-14 boys’ basketball season, outside expectations were not high for the New Albany Bulldogs.

New Albany returned only two players in senior guard Leondre McBirth and junior forward Jeff Byrne who had significant varsity experience. Plus the Bulldogs lost four players who each averaged eight-plus points a contest from their 15-8 squad from a season ago.

The three seniors on this year’s team — McBirth, Dustin Cochran and Javen Reeves — were determined to show the skeptics that this season’s Bulldogs were better than last year’s squad.

The senior trio has definitely proven that this season.

New Albany currently has a 17-6 record, two games better than last season’s mark. The Bulldogs won their first outright Hoosier Hills Conference championship since 2010.

New Albany then made a major statement last weekend by winning its first Class 4A Seymour Sectional title since 2011. The Bulldogs defeated Jennings County in Saturday’s sectional final, 55-49 and will face Evansville Central (16-6) in the Seymour Regional semifinals at 11 a.m. this coming Saturday.

“They’ve been huge,” New Albany coach Jim Shannon said of his seniors. “They’ve provided us with leadership. When they took nights off from their leadership — because they took some nights off — we didn’t succeed.”

Cochran said the underdog talk entering the 2013-14 campaign definitely fired him up.

“It motivated us — big time,” the 5-foot-7 guard said. “We were the underdogs this whole season. We just came out and played hard. We had one goal and that was to at least get a sectional championship.”

After last Saturday’s sectional title win, Reeves felt a great deal of satisfaction in quieting the Bulldogs’ preseason critics.

“It motivated me a lot because a lot of people didn’t think too highly of us,” the 6-foot forward said. “We proved a lot of people wrong.”

McBirth did not believe all the negative talk surrounding his program in the preseason. He knew New Albany had a chance to have a successful season.

“I was motivated because I knew we weren’t the underdog,” the 6-1 guard said. “At the start of the season, Coach told us how good we can be. We knew we weren’t the underdog, and we can play. We went out and competed and we did it. We got it done.”

The three seniors have contributed to the Bulldogs in different ways this season.

McBirth is New Albany’s leading scorer at 16.5 points per game along with grabbing four rebounds per contact. He also has done a solid job in getting his teammates involved in the offense, distributing a team-high 2.5 assists per game.

McBirth averaged 17 points per contest in last week’s sectional, including a game-high 28 in the Bulldogs’ victory over the Panthers.

Cochran is one of New Albany’s top 3-point shooters and best defenders. He has averaged 7.7 points and two steals per game this season.

Cochran came through in the clutch in last Friday’s 61-51 victory against Bedford North Lawrence in the sectional semifinals. He nailed two 3-pointers in the closing moments of the third quarter to keep the Bulldogs in front at 41-36. He then made 5-of-6 free throws in the final quarter to sew up the win and wound up with a team-high 13 points.

Reeves has provided the Bulldogs with solid effort on the defensive end and the boards. He averages 5.5 points and two steals a contest.

“I think they’ve learned that they have to do the right things every day,” Shannon said. “When they do that, good things happen. And when they don’t, good things don’t happen.”

The 16th-year Bulldog boss does not give all the credit to his seniors for his team’s stellar season. All of his players have played key roles in this year’s success, especially Byrne.

The 6-1 forward has averaged 6.2 points per game while battling front-line players taller than him in some games. Byrne also is an effective shooter from behind the 3-point arc.

“I credit a lot of it to our seniors, but I also credit our underclassmen for stepping up,” Shannon said. “Jeff Byrne has stepped up a bunch this year. Jeff Byrne might as well be a senior. He’s been playing long enough and he’s had some big games. He’s very vocal and a team leader.

“We’ve had some underclassmen step up. DeAnthony Warren, Nick White, Davon Winburn — those kids have brought some great minutes to this team.”

Cochran agrees with his coach that all of the Bulldogs have increased their contributions this season.

“We all had to step up, not just the seniors but everyone in general,” Cochran said. “We had to step up and play hard.”

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