CHESTER -- The Chester community was swirling in "Cyclone-mania" in late November as the school's football team was in the midst of reaching the state championship game for the first time in 44 years.
But while the focus was on the football success, Chester basketball coach Jason Smith was competing in a preseason tournament at Union County High School, and then, saw the same potential in his team.
"When we beat Spartanburg, I knew that we had something special," Smith said. "Last season, we lost to Wade Hampton in the first round of the playoffs, and we were a couple of games away from putting it all together. We have many of the same players from that team, and they were determined to work hard during the summer. That has definitely paid off for us."
Now, three months later, "Cyclone-mania" has returned to the Chester community, but this time, to show support for the boys basketball program. Chester, 17-8 and Region 3-AAA champion, will play Greenville for the Class AAA Upper State championship at Clemson's Littlejohn Coliseum at 8 p.m. today. The winner will advance to next week's state championship game in Columbia against the Myrtle Beach-Crestwood survivor.
The Cyclones' off-season preparation is reflected the most with the dominating play of a trio of seniors -- forward Jemarcus McClinton, center Donald Sims and guard Gene McCaskill.
At 6-5, Sims has been a terror in the middle, averaging 12 points and pulling down 16 rebounds per game. In the past two playoff games, Sims ripped down 22 and 23 rebounds, respectively, against Camden and Travelers Rest. McClinton has emerged as the team's go-to player, ranking among the state's scoring leaders with 26.9 points per game.
McCaskill, the starting quarterback of the Cyclone football team, carried over his magic to the hardwood with 12 points and six assists per contest. He has demonstrated tremendous court savvy with a low turnover ratio, clutch perimeter shooting and solid ball distribution.
"Jemarcus really worked hard to improve his game over the summer," Smith said. "When he wasn't in the (Chester YMCA) playing ball, he was in here lifting weights. He went from being an average player with potential to now being one of the top players in the state."
McClinton said that the off-season commitment to improving his court skills began with a difficult decision. The 6-3 forward, who was also a key receiver on the Cyclone football team, decided not to play football his senior year in order to concentrate on basketball.
His summer was then set, and his daily trips to the YMCA brought his game to another level. There, McClinton competed against many past Chester players, including current USC standout Devan Downey.
"I used to play against grown men, and that really helped my game. They gave me tough defense and really pressed me; I also developed more offensively," McClinton said. "Last year, I just played on the team and I was not in the gym as often.
"During my senior year, I just committed myself to conditioning and lifting weights, just doing what was necessary for me to make it to the next level."
Smith said that McClinton has also developed an attitude of being "Mr. Clutch," delivering tough shots for the Cyclones in tough situations.
"Against Fairfield Central, I got a technical foul late in the contest, and all Jemarcus did was come down and convert a three-point play. Whenever the game is tight, he makes the key basket to turn the game around."
McClinton did just that on Tuesday against Travelers Rest. With the Cyclones down 57-56 with less than 2:00 remaining, the smooth forward took the ball at the top of the key, blew by two defenders and floated down the lane for a layup. That gave Chester the lead for good in the 65-57 victory.
"I want to thrive under pressure," he said. " I look at every shot as my last. I was not ready for us or this team to quit. I was determined to do everything in my power to keep us going."
While McClinton has emerged as the offensive spark, Sims relishes the role as the Cyclones' defensive force. Smith describes Sims as Chester's version of Dennis Rodman, the former NBA superstar.
"He just has a great knack for the game; he seems to be always in position for the rebound. He does whatever it takes to win; he is always on the floor getting after the loose ball, and he is also a great passer. There were at least three or four games where Donald had at least eight assists."
Smith said that Sims, who surpassed the 30-point mark three times this season, is also more than willing to sacrifice scoring to do "the dirty work," which includes workmanlike effort on the boards.
"We have enough guys who can score," Sims said. "During the holiday tournament at Northwestern earlier this season, I got over 30 points in two games, but we still lost both times. I still can score, but love to block shots, rebound and get the hustle points. Every ball that goes in the air, I have the attitude that it is mine. I feel that I got to have it."
Sims credits his rebounding to long hours in the weight room.
"Weights have played a big role, especially with all of the pushing, pulling and grabbing of my jersey," Sims said. "Thanks to the weights, that does not bother me now, where last year, it did."
Unlike Sims and McClinton, McCaskill did not have the luxury of concentrating solely on basketball during the off-season. The Cyclone football standout, who will play wide receiver next season at Kentucky, still picked up the basketball after summer gridiron workouts.
"Just like football, he is our quarterback on the basketball court," Smith said. "He also makes decisions as to who to pass the ball to, just like in football."
After a long football season which included playing in the North-South All-Star game, McCaskill made the quick transition to the hardwood. In addition to solid perimeter shooting and ball distribution, the 6-1 guard is even more valuable in stabilizing the team during pressure situations. He contributes that to the many tough situations in football.
"Football season has helped a lot. I talk to the players about the feeling we had about going all the way," McCaskill said. "When we made it to the state championship in football, I was pretty nervous and ended up making a few bad plays. I feel more calm and relaxed now, and feel that we have the team to do it."
Smith said that the school's success in boys basketball continues a solid winning trend that has developed at Chester in recent years. He not only points to the football season, but also, the girls softball program, which played for the Upper State title two straight years, and the boys track and field team, which finished as state runner-up last season.
"This shows the hard work that the coaches, faculty and athletic department is doing here, and also, the hard work and commitment of our student-athletes."
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