Druid Hills basketball pulls off remarkable turnaround

Druid Hills’ Red Devils basketball season came to an end in the GHSA 4A Boys Elite Eight against No. 1 McDonough March 2 at Druid Hills High School, but the loss only tells the story of a small portion of Druid Hills’ season.

The game featured a sold-out crowd, a packed student section, and fans who couldn’t get a ticket trying to peek inside.

The fans got what they came for. A back-and-forth affair between two of the top teams in 4A.

Druid Hills trailed by as many as nine points early on before going on several first half runs and taking a 26-20 lead not long after halftime. Druid Hills countered again—after McDonough closed the gap to 26-24—with a pair of Harry Gewirtz three pointers to go up 32-28 with 4:05 left in the third quarter.

McDonough’s Keenan Gray answered with two threes of his own, and McDonough stole some momentum and went on a run. Druid Hills cut the lead to three on four different occasions, the last coming on a drive by Karon Strickland with 1:31 to play to close the gap to 50-47, but the Red Devils couldn’t capitalize on McDonough’s late game free throw misses.

Instead, DeKalb County School District’s last team in the playoffs fell in the Elite Eight.

Strickland (1) drives the baseline against McDonough. Photos by Jay Phillips 

However, the loss to McDonough doesn’t define Druid Hills’s season. The Red Devils accomplished a great deal considering they were forced to cancel last season just four games after it began.

Druid Hills’ turnaround was one of the most remarkable feats accomplished by any team in the state this season and won Head Coach Antoine Stroud the Region 6-4A Coach of the Year Award.

“These guys are a testament to hard work and what hard work looks like, and this is still the most family-oriented team I’ve been around,” said Stroud. “It was a great season, but I’m not surprised by these guys.”

According to Stroud, the team took on a different mindset after last season was taken away from them. This year, the team practiced harder, bought into the staff’s plan, and brought that energy to games. Stroud said he had to stop practice a few times due to intense play.

The hard work paid off. Druid Hills won 25 games, including the Region 6-4A Tournament Championship in a 50-42 win against Marist School. Druid Hills had not won 20 or more games in a season since 2009 – two years after its last Elite Eight appearance. Stroud said the season was valuable experience.

The Red Devils earned some of that experience by playing in the Tournament of Champions at Wheeler High School and by winning the Cleveland Stroud Invitational at Rockdale High School.

The invitational was named in honor of Stroud’s grandfather—who coached at Rockdale for 35 years and has the court named after him.

“We won the Cleveland Stroud Invitational and that was huge for me and my family. For me personally, that was like winning the state championship,” said Stroud. “That win and the wins in the Tournament of Champions at Wheeler spring boarded us into region play. When we won those games, I pretty much knew what this team was capable of.”

Family connections are a big deal at Druid Hills, even beyond winning the Cleveland Stroud Invitational. Stroud’s father Anthony Stroud is an assistant coach on the team. Anthony Stroud is one of DeKalb County’s all-time winningest coaches after his stints at Southwest DeKalb and Stone Mountain high schools.

The team embraced that sense of family and played for each other, Antoine Stroud said. It was one of the things that made them so much fun to watch and attracted so many community members to games.

Student support such as packing the gym as it did against McDonough was another game changer for the Red Devils.

“It looked like that all through the playoffs. They [students] came to Stephenson for the region tournament, and they were one of the reasons we beat a great Marist team,” said Stroud. “They make coaching at Druid Hills fun, and I’m going to be here a long time because of that.”

The Red Devils won’t be a flash in the pan either. Stroud said his program is set to have another good season next year. It doesn’t appear that another 20-win season drought is in the forecast.

“We have some really good, young players. We have good size coming back and a great sophomore class,” added Stroud.

The culture that Stroud’s seniors helped create will carry over to upcoming teams, especially after so many younger players learned from Druid Hills’ graduating seniors.

Still, Stroud will have his work cut out for him to have as successful of a season as he had this year. Keshawn Evans is graduating along with Gewirtz, Strickland, and others, but Stroud said the culture his seniors helped create is one of the things that will help next year’s team.

Evans (21) is one of several seniors who helped Druid Hills reach the Elite Eight.

Not only was changing the culture important for players at Druid Hills, but it will also help keep the talented players in the school’s district coming to Druid Hills.

“It’s very important to keep future players involved,” said Stroud. “We invited our middle school team to watch, and they couldn’t believe the atmosphere. I want to get these young kids playing at Druid Hills. We want to be in the middle of all of that.”

Druid Hills’ middle school team was the No. 1 seed in the DeKalb County middle school tournament, so the high school program has the potential to continue improving.

“We know what we have to do as a staff,” added Stroud.  

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