BATON ROUGE – Scotlandville junior guard Tai’reon Joseph said he’s already heard the whispers.
“People are saying we’re not going to go to the (state) championship without J,” Joseph said of former All-American and LSU signee Ja’Vonte Smart. “That we’re going to lose a lot of games. That just motivates us. We’ve got to show people we can win without J.”
It’s been just over three months since Scotlandville walked off the floor of the Burton Coliseum in Lake Charles with another state championship – a dominating 63-40 victory over St. Paul’s.
Not only did it represent consecutive Division I state crowns for the Hornets, but it was the fifth in seven years for the program which made its ninth straight appearance in the state title game.
The 6-foot-4 Smart concluded his career with 3,307 points and multiple All-American honors, leaving as the school’s most decorated player.
However, the Hornets have been in this position before, moving forward after the departure of a signature player which is evident by their nine straight state championship game appearances.
“This is nothing new to the system,” Scotlandville coach Carlos Sample, who is entering his 12th season this fall. “We know what they’re capable of doing. They have to believe in themselves. We have to coach these individuals up to fill those roles we badly need them to play for us to be successful as a program.”
Smart’s predecessors included such college-bound standouts such as Damien Jones Trelan Banks, Garrick Green, Jordan Adebutu and Lamarcus Lee.
They all played significant parts in getting Scotlandville to its current perch as the state’s No. 1 powerhouse and it’s been because of a transcendent talent such as Smart that’s kept it there.
Such a responsibility, for a returning team without a senior, now falls on the shoulders of players like Joseph, junior center Jonathan Horton, guard David Thomas III and Southern Lab transfer Carvell Teasett.
“This stuff doesn’t just fall in your lap,” Sample said of the program’s success. “The bullseye not just on your back now, it’s over your whole body from head to toe. These guys have to keep the tradition going, so they probably have to work 9-10 times as hard.”
The message has already resonated through the team.
“Coach always says it’s the next man up,” Joseph said. “If one man leaves there’s no pressure. We just play the next guy. Everybody has to play, and everybody has to step up.”
Scotlandville already has someone in place to build around in junior sharp-shooting guard Reece Beekman, the team’s leading returning scorer at 13.9 points and rebounder at 4.3.
Beekman has next-level ability and has already piled up 11 scholarship offers, a list that includes LSU, Arizona State, Kansas State, Minnesota, USC and Wisconsin.
Joseph, a slashing 6-3 guard/forward, averaged 7.3 points, Thomas, another shooting guard, averaged 6.8 points and the 6-4 Horton, the team’s proven low-post presence, had averages of 5.9 points and 3.7 rebounds.
“All the accolades and trophies are on the back burner,” Sample said. “This is their time. Are they going to live up to the expectations? Or are they going to be that team that’s lackadaisical and let’s it slip out of their hands? I’ve told them they have to write their own history and they understand that. They care and have to continue to care.”
Scotlandville has spent the summer adjusting to a rotation without Smart and Beekman, who has played the summer with Phenom University’s AAU team out of Milwaukee.
Not only have the Hornets practiced, but have participated in team camps at Southern, Madison Prep and Episcopal as well playing in the Zachary High Summer Basketball League.
“When we first started playing summer league we really didn’t have that chemistry because we were used to J distributing the ball and having a lot of stuff going through him,” Joseph said. “Now we have more ball movement and there’s more team play. The summer league has been important.”
During the Episcopal team camp last week Joseph gave a glimpse into his transformation as a player, one capable of taking on a greater scoring role.
Joseph scored 14 of his team-high 24 points in a 67-31 victory over St. Michael the Archangel, while Teasett added 16 for the Hornets who had nine 3-point field goals.
“It’s the early stages and guys have bigger roles,” Sample said. “Every year roles change and we have some individuals we’re depending on and they have to be solid players. They can’t be stagnant from last year.”
One of the highlights for Joseph in the game against St. Michael came midway through the second half when he drove the lane and finished with an emphatic left-handed slam dunk.
Scotlandville, which won all four its games at Episcopal, was back on the floor within minutes against E.D. White and promptly broke open a tight game with a 13-0 run in the last seven minutes of the first half for a 27-10 lead.
Joseph and Teasett each had 3-pointers to ignite that surge with Zaheem Jackson finishing with a steal and lay-in.
The area that brought the biggest smile to Sample’s face during a second-half explosion was the team’s unselfish play where Horton scored four of his 14 points off assists from Joseph and Teasett to make it 44-20.
Joseph scored seven of his 26 points during a two-minute stretch and fed Teasett, who totaled 20 points, for a 3-pointer before the Hornets went onto a decisive 75-45 victory.
Two days later, playing without Joseph and Thomas, the Hornets were extended to two overtimes before gutting out a win over Port Allen in Zachary’s summer league.
“They’re trying and as a coach that’s all you can ask,” Sample said. “They’re working hard. Once we get that chemistry and that toughness we’ll be alright.”