High Standards and a Long, Bittersweet Road to Success: An Inside Look at Boys Varsity Basketball

Frasier Horton

Frasier Horton

Monday, February 26, 2024
High Standards and a Long, Bittersweet Road to Success: An Inside Look at Boys Varsity Basketball

Boys varsity basketball coach Richard Ford, center left, hugs senior Ryan Vance as assistant coach Stephen Mitchell does the same with senior Richard Terrell toward the end of the Knights' first post-season loss and last game of the season. The Knights lost to sectional champ Locust Fork High School 80-63 to take second place in the 2A Regional tournament. Photos by Mayri Carsen.

LAMP. Loveless Academy Magnet Program. On November 3rd, the Altamont boys basketball team goes down to Montgomery with the goal of starting their season out with a win. Weeks of practice, two gallons of tears, and a lot of “weakness leaving the body” had all culminated in the first game of the 2023-2024 season. Seeing as we hadn’t lost to them since at least as far back as I can remember, we began to think of it more as a fun road trip rather than a business trip. Listening to music on the bus, stopping at Subway and the adjoining gas station; we just bonded as a team outside the basketball court before we’d even played a full game together. When we arrived, we cheered the JV boys and the girls’ varsity with some sort of cockiness, knowing that even if they lost, the varsity boys team would “handle business." At least we thought that way before the initial tipoff, just before we were to kick off our state championship dreams.  

For those who say the basketball 2023-2024 season started in the fall, they’d be wrong. It really starts in the summer. All throughout last summer, Altamont coaches hosted optional workouts where you could consistently see both boys' and girls' basketball players sharpening their skills. In the past, we’ve done these workouts and competed as a team in Birmingham Southern’s Summer Basketball Program against other schools from across the state, but this year we felt like we needed to gel faster and develop our chemistry earlier than some of the schools we’d be playing against. This summer we also had the opportunity to attend J Smith Hoops team summer camp where we got to play higher-level competition like Mountain Brook and Clay-Chalkville. With all the preparation we’d done, the season felt like it would be completely under our control and all we had to do was take it.  

LAMP was supposed to be our coming-out party, our on-the-map moment, and we lost. I actively chose not to look up the last time an Altamont team lost to a LAMP team for my own sanity and because I just don’t want you to know either. We were the team that was supposed to rewrite the narrative around Altamont basketball, and we lost to the 1A lay-up drill that is LAMP. Not only did we start the year off with an 0-1 record, but this would be the only time we played them this season, meaning it was a sweep. In the past, we would have clocked it as a bad shooting night, but that’s simply unacceptable for a team that had the aspirations that we had at the beginning of the season. Without realizing it, we began to develop those excuses and it felt like a step towards the past rather than the future, considering the shift in mentality we had already adopted this season.  

“By the 2023-2024 season, I expect to be in the BJCC for the Final Four with the group we have now.” 

Coach Richard Ford said that to some of us back in 2021, back when the boys’ basketball team was 3 and 13. If you’ve been keeping up with the boys’ basketball team, you might know that this season has been in the works for about three years. Freshman point guard Greyson Horton has been MVP or co-MVP the last two seasons and was a critical factor in our success this season. His partner in crime, Alex Kirksey, gives us the long-range shooting that propelled our 8-0 area record, but both players started the 2021 season on JV and were brought up in the middle of the season to bring the ball up for varsity. Keep in mind, this was when our JV team ended with a 13-1 record while varsity, again, went … 3-13, even with me and Ryan Vance on the team. In fact, to this day, there are legitimate debates over whether that JV team was flat out better than the varsity team. A lot of their success is attributed to now-seniors Richard Terrell (probably the all-time charges-taken leader of Altamont) and Robert “Final Destination” Flynn only being allowed to play JV due to the AHSSA transfer rules. But as fans can see, they’ve had the talent to not only play varsity basketball, but consistently produce every night. While the JV team was probably better than the varsity team, I like to think that the exposure that Ryan Vance and I got at the varsity level as sophomores played a critical role in our development and contributed to Ryan breaking out as a star senior guard this season. That, mixed in with the depth we have with David Borasino, Matt Kuwica, Jack Boehm, and Aiden Owens, played a crucial role in our season when there were unexpected injuries and illnesses.  

Before we started practice this season, Coach Ford sat us all down and passed a notecard to everyone and asked us to write our season goals and our individual goals. He also handed out sheets of paper breaking down our expected points per game, assists per game, rebounds per game, steals per game, field goal percentage, and free throw percentage. This year was the second year we’ve done this, but the goals were much higher because of who we had and where we sat in our 2A Area. Where last year’s team was focused on getting into the playoffs, this year’s team was focused on dominating the Area. Where last year’s team focused on winning a few games as “underdogs,” this year’s team wanted to win every game by 50. As for "individual goals," it was hard to tell that they were supposed to be individual, as all our goals were team-based. It was easy to find ideas like do what I can for the team, or become a constant scoring presence, or be able to interpret the plays faster, and it gave us the space to unite for a common goal.  

Of course, there is no great story without some problems along the road. Almost everyone who’s playing varsity this year played last year, but there became some separation by grade among the players. The team is 10 students: four seniors, four freshmen, and two juniors. In the early season, some of the losses began to show the differences in mentality, most notably between the freshmen and the seniors. After stomaching down the LAMP game, we tried to avoid losing to any other team we had no business losing to ever again, causing the dynamic to shift towards taking a more serious approach for the rest of the season for some. Teams like Fultondale, Tarrant, and especially John Carroll took up more head space in the seniors’ minds, as it was their last chance to beat them, so the losses were extremely frustrating. After piling up those last-time losses, I think the realization began to kick in that the last time we played these teams this season (regardless of previous record) would be the last time we played these teams ever. Every game was one less opportunity to play basketball that really “mattered”; from my own personal experience, it’s something you think about when you’re a sophomore or junior, but the actual experience is a beautiful amalgamation of both love and fear. The mentality was supposed to be “shoot for the stars," and after the losses kept coming, questions started to rise from the seniors regarding the underclassmen’s commitment to our goals. But as the season progressed and illness began to creep onto our 10-man roster, it became more evident that we needed everyone to be here and everyone to be up to speed. We began to take practice more seriously, with the mindset that any one of us could be out at any moment, and that to maintain our success, we all needed to be more than capable of playing whenever.  

I like to think our rallying point came when we went to Vincent Middle-High School for our second area game of the season. It wasn’t the basketball team that was worth rallying for, but the place. We knew we were just better than their team, but this was the place where our season ended last year by a whopping 8 points -- we lost to Cornerstone with Vincent hosting. To make matters worse, some of the players from last year’s Vincent team decided to talk trash in the stands. At that moment, all our goals became the same, and in my opinion, we produced the best team basketball we’d played all year. Everything began to click from our three-point shooting to our effort on the glass, to our execution of plays; the game became a competitive type of fun that kickstarted our 8-1 record until our last game.  

“By the 2023-2024 season, I expect to be in the BJCC for the Final Four with the group we have now.” To have the confidence to say that about a team before they had even shared a court together is just part of his character. Coach Ford put a ridiculous amount of effort into this season, sometimes driving as far as an hour away just to watch the team we'd play next in person. In practice, you can feel the love he has for this game, when he tries to break down new plays, break down old plays, when he finally gets mad enough to “show us how it’s supposed to be." But there’s also the part of him that never gave up on us off the court, through all the grade issues, lost jerseys, and other troubles. Over these three years, Coach Ford became more than a coach who knew a lot about the game of basketball, but someone you were willing to run 20 suicides for, someone you were willing to have a four-hour practice after Halloween for, because you could see how much he wanted us to accomplish our goals. If he felt like he couldn’t show something to us to the best degree, he would pass it to Coach Duncan Merriweather, who joined the program early this season and raised the bar of not only our work, but the measure of our success after each game. His most common saying seemed to be, “Y’all should’ve won by _____,” with that number being 20 or 30 points higher than our actual margin of victory. Coach Merriweather is also frustratingly good at dribbling through our presses and half-court defense and is very "creative" when it comes to punishing drills that make sure players (such as myself)) will never step out of line again. In all seriousness, his standard for us helped us realize how good we could be and was a huge part of the culture change that occurred this year.  

All that being said, this season to us was a failure, a "failure" being not reaching our ambitious goal. To everyone outside the program, this season might be seen as a tremendous success, but you don’t know the work we put into getting to where we wanted to go. When you have coaches like we do, and the environment we have here now, it’s hard not feel disappointed about not going all the way. We were knocked out of our Area playoffs by 2 points in 2022 and 8 points in 2023, and this year we won the Area and were runner-up of the Region. Of course, there’s a sense of pride in that, considering where we’ve come from, but runner-up is still on our plaque at the end of the day. Maybe that’s the impact of the culture shift, but we didn’t go into the Regional tournament just happy to be there; we came in with a goal -- to win it all -- and it’s hard to be pleased with the result.  

Even so, there is a huge shift in the culture that Altamont fans will be able to see for years. When I came here, there was an evident lack of effort from the majority of upperclassmen players: leaving practices, being late, expressing lack of interest with whatever we were doing. I could see Coach Ford was trying to find the kids who wanted to play basketball enough to stick with what we were trying to build, and show that Altamont basketball could be more than it had been. To that end, there has been success, and it's still unfolding.


The Altamont Knights boys varsity basketball team, runner-up in the 2A Regional tournament. Left to right are Matt Kuwica, Richard Terrell, Greyson Horton, Head Coach Richard Ford (rear), Alex Kirksey, Frasier Horton, Jack Hoover, Ryan Vance, Aiden Owens, Jack Boehm, Krish Patel, David Borasino, Robert Flynn, and Athletic Director and Assistant Coach Stephen Mitchell.

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