Deon Richardson heard the whispers. But the Burke High boys’ basketball coach never wavered or faltered.
Those whispers came two years ago when Richardson took over the Burke program for the highly successful Earl Brown, who won more than 700 games as the coach of the Bulldogs. That first season ended with Burke missing the state playoffs for the first time in more than 20 years.
“I know a lot of people who followed the program wondered if I was the right guy to lead the program,” said Richardson, who was an assistant on Brown’s staff for one year. “I know a lot of people thought the job was too big for me but I never felt that way. I knew we were a young team and I always had confidence that we could turn it around.
“Coach Brown was an icon here. No one respected him more than I did. I knew I could never be coach Brown. I’m human and all the negativity did bother me, but I never let it take me out of my thought process. I knew I had to be me, but it was definitely a learning experience for me.”
Richardson stuck with his program and his players stuck with him. Two years later, the Bulldogs are back on top in Region 6-A. Burke is 17-4 overall and already has clinched the region championship with a 9-0 record.
Richardson’s team is young with only three seniors.
“Our most productive players in terms of scoring are sophomores but we have a solid group of role players who have come to understand what we want and what we need to do to win games,” said Richardson. “We really have come together as a team and we’re playing pretty solid basketball right now.”
Sophomore guard Adonicus Sanders is Burke’s leading scorer, averaging 16.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Sophomore Sidney Robinson adds 13.1 points per game and sophomore Isaiah Holloway is scoring 9.2 points per game.
Burke’s three seniors — Brian Hamilton, Jonah White and Darrell Harley — are solid contributors on the floor and provide the necessary leadership.
Burke wins with a defense-first mentality. The Bulldogs are allowing only 44 points per game in region play.
“We love to play defense, pressure the ball, and use our athleticism,” said Richardson. “Our personnel fits our style. We stress defense, we stress hustle and we stress doing the little things. If someone can’t do what we need, we pull them out and let someone else try. That has worked for us so far.”
Burke will enter the Class A state playoffs as one of the favorites. But while the Bulldogs are the top-ranked team in Class A today, Richardson realizes that means very little once the season turns to the “win or go home” phase.
“Winning the region championship is nice but the goals of this team are much higher,” the coach said. “We can’t pay attention to rankings and things like that. We still have a long ways to go. Our ultimate goal is to win the state championship so we definitely need to continue to focus and improve every day.”