CHIPLEY — Life on the basketball court either gets tougher from here or 100 percent easier.
Chipley and West Gadsden square off Friday night in a Region 2-1A regional final boys basketball game, and at stake is a berth in the Class 1A state tournament set to begin next week in Lakeland. In the Region 1-1A final, Malone will host Paxton. Both games start at 7 p.m.
West Gadsden followed up on its second-place finish at state last year with a District 4-1A title this season, and the Panthers (19-3) present Chipley (21-2) with its biggest challenge of the postseason thus far.
“Traditionally they are very athletic, big and strong,” Chipley coach Joel Orlando said. “They have a very fiery way of playing. They are high energy and cause a lot of havoc and turnovers.”
The Tigers are led by sophomore Trent Forrest and junior Tyrome Sharpe, the two of whom combined for 47 of Chipley’s 66 points in a rout of Port St. Joe in the regional semifinals. Orlando compared them favorably to former Chipley tandem Alex Hamilton and Cameron Dozier, who led the Tigers to a Class 1A state championship two years ago.
“They are a very good 1-2 punch, for lack of a better term, just like Alex and Cameron” Orlando said. “They play well with each other. They don’t have to be our leading scorer necessarily for us to win, but we would like for them to be.”
Forrest, who poured in 31 points in the regional semis, is 6-foot-4, and Orlando said he is a “young 15 years old.”
“He’s a 4.0 student and has high character,” Orlando said. “He is well liked by the students. He’s a religious young man and comes from a great family. It’s all character off the court. When he’s on the court he obviously has a high basketball IQ, and that goes along with his incredible work ethic and God-given talent.”
Orlando said his team has focused on short-term and long-term goals throughout the season in the lead up to this game, and he said it is important that his players don’t lose sight of the task at hand by looking ahead at what could be another trip to state.
“Having Tyrome and Logan Justice, the two lone guys off of our state championship team, they try to relay what they experienced and pass that on to the younger guys. During the season we schedule some teams that are very competitive, very big and athletic, and we hope to challenge them with these bigger schools to prepare them for this stage if they get there.
“Mental focus is so hard to develop in a 14-year-old or a 15-year-old in an atmosphere that is pressure-filled. We’re really trying to make them understand how important it is to be mentally ready.”
Chipley’s home gym was loud and the Tiger fans boisterous when Chipley played Port St. Joe, and Orlando expects a similar outpouring of support tonight.
“We have the best fans in the Panhandle and probably the state,” he said. “It’s not only the student body, but it’s the faculty, the school, the community. People come out to the games and have no children in the program. We have business supporters. It’s a huge advantage playing at home because of the type of fans we have.”