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Strong aiming to return to state tourney with new coach

by Jason Avery | December 11, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

Last season, Strong qualified for the state tournament for the first time since 2018.

Now the Bulldogs are aiming higher, and they are hoping new coach Robert Shelton can guide them there.

Strong is scheduled to open the 2021-22 season Monday at Hermitage.

Hired late in the summer, Shelton didn’t get much time with his team before football commenced, but he was able to work with players not in football to get them used to his approach.

“I did get a chance to work with some guys that didn’t play football,” Shelton said. “I had roughly around six guys that didn’t play football, so I got a chance to work with those guys. They also didn’t play last year, so that was a positive to me that they came out.

“I would come up on Saturdays and work with those guys and just talk to some of the other guys about what I was going to try to run on offense and defense. The guys that played football, I got a chance to talk with them about it. They pretty much picked up on the concept. It transferred into practice. I can tell that they’re picking up on what we’re trying to do.”

With Strong winning the 2A 8-Man state championship last week, Shelton has been busy getting his football players who are transitioning up to speed.

“It’s been going pretty good,” Shelton said. “The guys have picked up on the concept that I’m trying to implement, and they’ve bought in. That’s the main thing. They’ve bought in. I’ve been putting some pieces together and everybody seems to be working well together on the floor. The practices have been going very well.”

A key figure from last year’s squad that Shelton will need to find a replacement for is Emauri Newton, who averaged 17 points and 10 assists. A member of the 1A All-State Tournament team from last season, Newton is a freshman at South Arkansas Community College.

Among the returnees are seniors Byron Maze and Fred Williams. Maze averaged a double-double with 16 points and 15 rebounds per game, while Williams averaged 12 points per game.

And while Shelton has a solid nucleus to work with, he is trying to find the right fit for them.

“I guess you could say we’re not real big at the four and the five spot, but I’ve got some guys that came out of football that I really think can fill those spots,” Shelton said. “I have a core group that just came out of football, and they work well together as a group.

“It’s a group of seniors, which is pretty much what I am going to try and rely on but also adding in some of those juniors that can play. They’re not very big, but they’re skilled and they’re quick. Just adding those pieces to the frontcourt and trying to find a few that can fill in at the four and the five.”

Given their late start, the Bulldogs will certainly be a work in progress during the season, but Shelton said their mindset carrying over from football will help ease that transition.

“Football ran over and we got a championship out of that,” Shelton said. “The guys have a winning mindset. I think that’s very important. Coming out of football, it’s not taking as long for them to transition into a basketball mindset. That’s one big thing that I have picked up on. They’re bought in and transitioning from football to basketball. That’s been real, real important and a real positive sign for me that they’re transitioning to that basketball mindset.”

For Shelton, controlling the pace of the game is a top priority.

“I like to be able to control the pace of the game,” Shelton said. “It just depends on the pace of the game. If it’s fast pace up and down, I just try to be able to have control of the pace of the game. If it’s a slow down, we’ll be able to slow it down. For me, it’s multiple, but I just really go by the pace of the game and how it’s being ran.”

Shelton has ties to Strong with his dad being from there.

“I’m from El Dorado and my dad is from Strong,” Shelton said. “I knew a lot about Strong. I knew a lot about the Bulldogs and how they were big on athletics. I just feel like it was a place that I just really had to be. I wanted the job. Driving in from El Dorado to Strong, I took that trip so many times as a kid with my dad, it just brought back so many memories. I just felt like I had to have this job. I’m familiar with the Strong Bulldogs and how big they are on athletics. They work hard. I knew I was going to come in and have some guys that are willing to work and get the job done.”

As the season goes on, Shelton said his team will hang its hat on defense.

“Looking at them, they’re going to be persistent. I know they’ll be persistent,” Shelton said. “The attitude of never give up and never stop playing. I believe that defense wins championships.

“That’s just my mindset, and I believe that these guys are focusing on the defensive side of the ball and understanding how important that is. I think that’s one of the major keys for us to be successful. The offense will come, and I think they know that. I’m challenging them to have that defensive mindset.”

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