A year ago, North Forrest came off a 25-5 season that led to the Eagles making a trip to Jackson.
North Forrest graduated seven seniors and three starters, which didn’t exactly raise the ceiling for the 2020 season. But in an unlikely rebuilding year, North Forrest coach Quenton Loving not only finished the year 20-9 but, for the second consecutive season, his team finished in the semifinals of the 2A playoffs. This achievement earned him the honor of PineBeltSPORTS Boys Coach of the Year.
However, if you had asked Loving what his expectations were entering the season, like many, he didn’t foresee the same results as last year.
“We were losing a lot of experience,” Loving said. “Guys were going to have to step into some key roles that didn’t have a lot of playing experience. I knew over the course of the season that we would get better and that’s what happened.”
According to Loving, one of the biggest keys entering the season was having his young players quickly buy into the program’s culture.
“The key part was getting them to buy in the team concept of understanding (that) until we got some experience as far as scoring, the basketball on the offensive end,” Loving said. “We had to dig in and really be one unit defensively.
“I told them to win at a high level we have to not only defend but we have got to finish the possession with a rebound. We were an undersized team but blocking out and doing the little things against a lot of teams that were bigger than us. But we’re fundamentally sound on the defensive end.”
Loving also knew that playing an important role in helping develop the team with the help of returning starters Joe Holloway and Cleveland Williams.
“We knew we had a special player with Joe Holloway who had a lot of experience and another player in (Cleveland) Williams who had experience,” Loving said. “But over the course of the year, guys just started stepping up in key situations in district games. We raised our intensity on defense. We made it tough for teams to score on us and came together. We were just a close-knit group, and we got hot at the right time.”
The main foundation of the program’s culture, playing style and Loving’s strategy is defense. On the year, North Forrest held teams to 48.9 points per game, which ranked best in 2A Region 8 district.
“I’m a big believer in things you can control every night such as defense, rebounding, hustle ... and that’s what we did early on,” Loving said. “We had some bumps and bruises, but we got better at it. Then the guys gained confidence and we got some better production on the offensive end.”
The Eagles won the regular season of their district but fell short to St. Patrick in the district tournament championship game, which is right when North Forrest heated up to make its deep playoff run.
In their 2A run, the Eagles staged a comeback win over Lake, upset Heidelberg and came up with a comeback, game-winner over Amite County to get back to the Final Four.
“Down in district play on to the district tournament, we started playing really well,” Loving said. “We lost to a tough team of St. Patrick in the district championship game, but we didn’t let that stop us. We were just a mentally tough team no matter what obstacles came our way. We just fought through it all.
“It’s kind of nerve-racking (to coach those kinds of the games) but it’s also fun. We went through everything. We played a lot of close games down the stretch because of the inexperience ... I think it caused us to play in those close battles. I knew we were going to be there defensively, but some nights offensively we struggled, especially when Joe wasn’t superman.”
Despite losing to Coahoma County in the semifinals, North Forrest graduates one starter and three seniors, which leaves high expectations for the 2021 season.
“About 80 percent of the team is returning,” Loving said. “There is going to be a lot of high expectations. In the last two years, we have made it to Jackson. After the season, I told the guys that next year we are going to have to take it one game at a time and continue to build on being a really good defensive team. They also know that they are going to have to pick up their offensive game to help us make big shots in big situations in big spots. We have to work on being the great defensive team.”
For the fourth-year head coach, the next step for his team is to develop into a “championship offense” to compliment the team’s defense.
“I told them in the locker room after we lost to Coahoma County in Jackson ... our defense was championship caliber, but we were just short on the offensive end,” Loving said. “Our offense hasn’t made it to a state championship level yet. That’s going to be the key going into 2021. Can we become a state championship level offensive team to complement our championship defense?”
However, for Loving, the credit of his honor and success goes to his players and their hard work.
“It’s a testament to the kids of how hard they worked for me,” Loving said. “During the season you have ups and downs, but every night they responded and worked hard. I have always been told that a testament to the respect that players have for their coach is how hard they play. No doubt about it, they play hard for me. They have a no-quit mentality, so I’m blessed to be around this group of kids.”