Robert Woodard II doesn’t mind a few extra sets of eyes looking down on him.
In fact, the Columbus High School junior won’t hesitate to look up to the far wall by the scoreboard for a reminder that the Falcons can realize championship dreams if they work together.
This year, Woodard II and first-year head coach Gary Griffin will try to help Columbus build off the program’s first state title. A picture of the 2015-16 team coached by Luther Riley was unveiled Monday night as part of Purple Madness, a kickoff event to mark the beginning of the 2016-17 girls and boys basketball seasons for Columbus High.
Woodard II did his part to lead the way, winning the 3-point shooting contest. Junior guard Denijay Harris won the slam dunk contest, while Kaderius Williams won the skills competition and transfer Jaborris Frazier was named the MVP of the All-Star game.
The festivities were part of a two-hour show the served as an introduction for coach Yvonne Hairston’s Columbus High girls team and Griffin’s boys team, which will try to build on its Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A State title after losing 10 seniors.
“It was very exciting,” said Griffin, who was an assistant coach to Riley last season. “We had a lot of support from the community. The bleachers were full and we had a lot of entertainment from the students at Columbus High School. It showed that we have very talented kids at Columbus High School.”
The entertainment included signing, dancing, and musical performances by a variety of students. Hairston’s girls and Griffin’s boys took care of the athletic portion of the agenda. The unveiling of the state championship picture was part of a look back at last season that included a video of highlights punctuated by a victory against reigning state champion Starkville last March in Jackson.
Griffin said it was satisfying to see those highlights and to have that picture in the gym, but he added that it is time to move on and make sure the 2016-17 team makes its mark.
“Last year was last year and now it is time to move forward,” Griffin said. “I like the pieces we have because we were able to put some size with the guys we had coming back. We have Robert Woodard coming back. He is very poised and he is a leader. He is one of the best kids in the state of Mississippi. We are fortunate to have that building block back to lead the rest of the team.”
Griffin said he won’t put too much pressure on Woodard II to feel like he has to do so much more to offset the graduation losses. But he knows Woodard II is mature enough to know he will be counted on to play a variety of roles to help bring the younger players along. He said Woodard II returned for this season in great shape and is primed to be a lead-by-example and a vocal leader on and off the court.
“He knows this is truly his team, so he has stepped up without me having to talk to him about that leadership process,” Griffin said. “He works extremely hard on and off the court. He is an Honor Roll student. He is one of the top kids in the Columbus school system in terms of academics. He takes that very seriously.”
In the 3-point shooting contest, Woodard II hit 12 in the first round and then drained 13 more from the top of the key to edge Dante Harris.
Woodard II knows there is going to be a big bull’s eye on his back, but he said he is prepared for the challenge.
“It is not going to be easy at all,” Woodard II said. “I know I have a load to carry this season. I really worked hard in the offseason. I am in the gym every chance I get. We are going to do what we have to do to win.”
In the dunk contest, Harris used a tomahawk dunk on his attempt in the first round to advance to the finals. Woodard II enlisted the help of Greg Morris on his attempt in the final. Woodard II lined up in the far left corner and had Morris stand near the left low block. Morris tossed the basketball off the side of the backboard as Woodard II swooped in and attempted a dunk-clutch windmill dunk. He missed the first three attempts before breaking off and getting one dunk in under the one-minute time limit. He returned to the dunk from the side on his final try, only to have it hit off the back of the rim.
Harris teamed with Dante Harris on his final attempt. Denijay took a positioned on the left, while Dante took to the right. Both players angled in toward the rim, with Dante going under his legs to deliver an alley-oop to Denijay, who flushed it for the winning dunk.
“The first dunk was like a warmup,” said Denijay, who had only two dunks in his repertoire. “I knew I had a chance to win, but I didn’t know I was going to win. It feels good.”
Griffin said Harris is going to be counted on to be a consistent performer on both ends of the floor. He said Harris needs to raise his intensity on the defensive end and to be aggressive so he can realize his potential. He feels winning the dunk contest will help lift his confidence.
“That was a great job by him,” Griffin said. “That gives him a sense of belonging, especially coming in he felt he was a long shot and that everybody thought Robert was going to win the slam dunk competition. It gives him something to shoot for in terms of his ability.”
Columbus will play Yazoo City on Nov. 5 in Tiger Land Classic in Canton. It will play host to West Lowndes in its home opener on Nov. 8.
n The Columbus boys also are selling $10 tickets for a fish fry fundraiser. The fish fry, which is sponsored by the 6th man Booster Club, will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Columbus High. The plate will include fish, cole slaw, baked beans, cake, and a beverage. One ticket is good for one plate. The proceeds will go to the Columbus High boys basketball program.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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