Loss of graduating seniors, league promotion don’t faze Athens basketball

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Troy Times | Published January 24, 2024

 Loss of graduating seniors, league promotion don’t faze Athens basketball

Loss of graduating seniors, league promotion don’t faze Athens basketball

 Troy Athens senior Brayden Downey attempts a shot from the corner during a matchup against Farmington Jan. 18 at Farmington High School.

Troy Athens senior Brayden Downey attempts a shot from the corner during a matchup against Farmington Jan. 18 at Farmington High School.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


TROY — Everything seemed to pile up at once for Troy Athens boys basketball.

After finishing the regular season on an 8-3 stretch, Athens seemed to be turning a corner, from a momentum standpoint.

But once the season was over in a one-point loss to Sterling Heights Stevenson in the first round of districts, it was goodbye to the six senior veterans and hello to a league promotion, moving up from the Oakland Activities Association Blue to the OAA White.

Fortunately for Athens and head coach David Scott, the Red Hawks would inherit an influx of talented first-year players with no memory of districts, and only their sights set on taking the reins of the OAA.

“Last year was a learning experience, but it was tossed in the rearview because we have so many new players this year that there wasn’t any time to sulk about last season,” senior guard Emmanuel Robinson said. “Many thought that this year’s team was a worse basketball team compared to last year. I think our guys were just excited to prove that narrative wrong.”

The Red Hawks’ run through Robinson, a dynamic scorer as a junior last season who showed promise to be one of the best players in the OAA his senior season.

Now the veteran leader everyone is looking up to, Robinson has answered the call, leading Athens to a 9-3 start and second place in the league with a 5-1 record.

Alongside Robinson, seniors Griffin Labay, Brayden Downey, Hayden Crum and Luke DiGiovanni have stepped up this season for the Red Hawks.

Labay and DiGiovanni have played with a different type of confidence this season courtesy of their state tournament run for the Athens soccer team, which defeated Brighton 2-1 Nov. 4 to capture the Division 1 State Championship this year.

Soccer-to-basketball confidence has shown in the past for Athens when a state championship win translated into an OAA Blue league title for the basketball team with soccer players at the helm, and Scott said he’s hoping the same result is replicated.

“We got a couple of soccer players that made that great state tournament run, and I think anytime you have any sort of success, like, it can bleed over to your other sports,” Scott said. “Guys like Griffin Labay, who really kind of came off the bench for us last year and didn’t play a ton, he’s been one of our top three players this year, and I think our second leading scorer. He’s just been making some big plays for us down the stretch. Guys like Luke DiGiovanni, who was also on the soccer team, has just brought that competitiveness, whether in the game or at practice. We don’t win our first game against Rochester without Luke. I think having those kids in the mix really helps.”

Also in the mix this season for Athens are first-year varsity players Nathan Piggott (sophomore); Cainan Hanbury (sophomore); Nate Appledorn (junior); Corban Crum (junior); younger brother of Hayden, Jason Bouna (junior), who was also on the state-winning soccer team; and Brennen Tucker (junior).

It’s not often you see a first-year varsity class size of this magnitude, but the Red Hawks were in desperate need of impact pieces after graduating a talented senior class.

“These guys are all first-year varsity guys that have really elevated our season,” Robinson said. “I appreciate the work and how they have bought into the program.”

Piggott and Hanbury were tasked with arguably the toughest job of anyone on the team, replacing graduating senior Brogan Withun.

A 6-foot-7 monster in the paint, Withun left a massive void both figuratively and literally in the Athens lineup, and it wasn’t going to take just one player to step up.

Downey stepped up as a senior leader and added onto his already hefty role to help soften the blow, while Piggott and Hanbury have worked together to keep Athens afloat in the frontcourt.

“Truthfully, it’s our two sophomores who have really stepped up,” Scott said. “Brayden Downey, who played for us last year, has kind of expanded his role. I would say that other parts have been Nathan Piggott and Cainan Hanbury, who have really helped give us a defensive identity. Obviously, you’re not going to replace Brogan with one kid, but as far as rebounding, some toughness and defense, they’ve exceeded everything that we wanted. Coming from two 10th graders, both football kids, they get in there and play with a kind of toughness and mentality that’s been great, and it honestly fills in with what we’ve been missing.”

Athens is currently averaging just over 52 points per game this season while holding opponents to 45 points per game.

The Red Hawks have already bested some of the OAA White’s toughest teams in Harper Woods and Farmington, but trail hometown rival Troy by one game for first place in the league. The two teams are slated to go head-to-head Feb. 15 at Troy High School, while their second matchup, which was canceled earlier due to weather, will be rescheduled.

While the OAA White is the primary focus at the moment for Athens, getting over the district hump is still a topic of conversation. Athens last won a district title in 2013 before being eliminated in the regional semifinals.

Basketball rankings don’t seem to favor Athens, nor does Athens seem to care about whether they’re getting overlooked or not.

They’re dominating in their first season of a tough conference, and they’re hoping the momentum carries over when the Red Hawks need it most.

“I feel like we were definitely overlooked,” Downey said. “If you look at the rankings right now, you would think Athens would be a dog walk. You would think you could just come in and roll the balls out. I’m trying to say we don’t need publicity at all. We will still keep doing our thing regardless of what the rankings say or the numbers say, because at the end of the day, it’s just numbers.”