With the graduation of several of the team’s starters, few Carbon Hill supporters expected that the Bulldogs would make a return to the AHSAA State Tournament for a second year.
The Bulldogs, under coach Robert Epps, however, were determined to exceed expectations and did just that — winning not only Walker County, area and Northwest Regional Tournament championships — but also advancing to Class 3A championship game at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center after picking up their first ever Final Four win.
For the second consecutive year, Epps is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s Coach of the Year.
The road wasn’t easy for the Bulldogs. Beyond replacing the graduated key starters — two of the team’s standouts — Gerald Smith and Jacob Davis missed time due to injury or illness and Carbon Hill’s challenging schedule included in-county rival Dora, Hale County, 4A Holt and eventual state champion Greensboro.
The turning point came in a 53-49 loss to Winfield on Jan. 10 that had Carbon Hill’s record at 11-7. From that point, the Bulldogs would not lose another game until the state title game, finishing the season with a 27-8 mark.
Epps said much of the team’s success came from the overall progression of his team and strengthening of the Bulldogs’ bench.
“There’s a big transition from playing junior varsity ball to varsity — and it was a transitional period that our kids had to go through as far as the ones that we wanted to come and give us significant minutes” Epps said.
“Once we put them in that position to step and have the opportunity to play, they were able to understand why we do things a certain way. On the JV team, particular things that we do at the varsity level don’t matter, as many times you are more talented than the guys on the floor across from you — but in those cases, you don’t have to understand whole gameplans. It takes a while for them to understand the ‘why’, but it’s the key to players becoming good varsity team members and it’s what helped us turn the point this year.”
For Epps and his coaches, watching the progression of the team from one that struggled to returning to the Final Four and playing for the state championship was a great joy.
“A great thing to enjoy is when you watch the maturation process occur — you can’t speed it up, it just takes time — and that’s what you have to be willing to do,” Epps said. “You have to be patient and understand what you are doing. You have to ask the players to do is the right thing, even though it might not be the easiest thing for them to catch on to. They caught on, played well and we couldn’t be more proud of what they accomplished.”