Elbert County Blue Devils coach Josh Jones teaches at the middle school, and four years ago a group of sixth-graders were emerging as a promising nucleus for a future varsity squad. Aaniyah Allen, Niya Moon, Jamia Allen, Terrace Hester and Bernasia Faust would go 33-0 in middle school and, starting in seventh grade, Jones had them practicing with the JV squad.
The expectation was for the Class of 2023 to contribute to the varsity team as freshman.
“I knew they had a lot of potential,” said Jones, who lettered three years for the Blue Devils’ boys team in the late 1990s. He had been an assistant on the girls team since the 2003-04 season before taking over as coach in 2018. “We’d lost six seniors the year before they came up and the group in front of them was low — we have one senior this year — so I knew (the Class of ‘23) would have to be ready to play right away.”
As it would turn out, all five started as freshman during the 2019-20 season. Aniya Allen, Moon and Jamia Allen were in the lineup to start the season, then injury and other circumstances thrust Hester and Faust in.
Though the Blue Devils would finish 16-10 that season, they’d miss the playoffs. However, there was plenty to build from and with a year of varsity experience under their belt, the stage was set for a breakout 2020-21 season.
As sophomores, the Blue Devils captured the state’s attention, bursting onto the scene with a 23-3 final record, a quarterfinals finish and their first region title in 15 years. Aaniyah Allen was a first-team all-state selection. They narrowly lost 46-44 in the playoffs to eventual champions Josey.
“I knew they were capable of that kind of success but I wasn’t sure if they’d do it that soon,” Jones said. “From an experience standpoint, they were just sophomores and we didn’t have any senior leadership. The seniors we had never played much. I knew we would win games but I didn’t know we’d win 23, win region and beat Rabun County three times, but they like to come in and work hard.”
The Blue Devils have given no indication of slowing down. At 16-2, they’re ranked No. 1 in 2A as they enter Region 8 play against Banks County (8-9) Tuesday in Elberton. They’re 2-2 against ranked teams, beating defending champs No. 4 Josey 48-45 on Dec. 4, and 1A Private’s No. 6 Calvary Day 58-46 on Dec. 11.
Their two losses came to top-five teams from higher classifications — 6A’s No. 4 Buford beat them 64-55 on Nov. 27 and 4A’s No. 1 Jefferson won 57-46 on Dec. 20. They’ll get a rematch with Jefferson at home on Jan. 29, their only non-region contest remaining.
“When I made our schedule, I wanted to play as many tough opponents as we could without overdoing it,” Jones said. “I wanted to see them challenged, and for them to know there’s another level we can reach. We’re not going to see anything in the playoffs that we didn’t see in those games. Playing Buford was a real eye-opener for the team, to see how they do things. I feel like we learned a lot.”
Aaniyah Allen eclipsed the 1,000-point mark for her career Dec. 18 in a 60-28 win over Madison County, and she’s the Devils’ leading scorer and rebounder with averages of 20.2 points and 5.7 boards. Moon is averaging 14.5 points and five rebounds. Hester is averaging 8.4 points and Faust is averaging a block.
The Blue Devils’ growth from season to season goes beyond mere skill. Jones characterizes his core of juniors as a mature group of A-B students, with Jamia Allen in the top 10 percent of her graduating class while holding down a part-time job.
“They’re so smart,” Jones said. “They pick up on things faster than some of our girls in the past, and that’s what led to them starting so early. It’s sped up our process so much.”
The Blue Devils are at their best when their defense is creating offense via the full- and half-court press. With the core now in their third varsity season together, Jones has switched from a zone defense to man-to-man. Offensively, they’ve become more effective at running set plays.
“We’re more versatile,” Jones said. “I’m comfortable asking them to do more.”
The leadership component that had been absent the previous two seasons has been filled by the juniors, who now have two full years of varsity experience under their belt, including a deep playoff run last year. Further, the team is starting to gel around that nucleus.
“One of the biggest differences from last year is the contributions from our bench,” said Jones, praising reserves Jordan Glaze, Jameria Allen and Haely Umble. “They’ve played big minutes and made big plays when we really needed them.”
The Blue Devils will take aim for a second consecutive 8-2A title. That alone would be an accomplishment given that perennial power Rabun County has been the class of the region since Wildcats coach DeeDee Dillard took over more than a decade ago. Before going 3-0 against the Wildcats last season, it had been seven years since Elbert County beat them.
The Devils also want to top last season’s success. That would mean, at minimum, a trip to the semifinals, which is the furthest they’ve ever been and that was just once, in 1960.
“The goal is to go all the way,” Jones said. “I think we can, and I tell them all the time that if we play the way we all know we can, I like our chances against anybody. If we’re locked in and focused, nothing can keep us from our ultimate goal.”