By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Last night in the Munford Gymnasium those affiliated with the black and red of the Brighton Cardinals were flying high off the emotion of being District 13-3A Boys Tournament champions after a 72-59 victory over the Dyer County Choctaws.
But for one Cardinal the moment of taking down the defending champions Choctaws and reaching a new height for the Brighton program reach beyond the clouds. Brighton junior Zach Lewis took a moment to think about his No. 1 fan April Lewis watching down on him from Heaven.
“Hard work pays off as you can see,” the All-District performer said. “It feels good to win the district championship. But we still have a long ways to go.
“It means a lot because I lost my Mama,” Zach added. “This means a lot. I love them guys. Family sticks together. We ride for each other.”
After losing his mother, Zach lean on his teammates and the Brighton coaching staff headed by Stan Gatlin. With his biological son Taelyr on the roster, the elder Gatlin has formed a similar bond with the players on his roster the past three years.
Gatlin arrived to Brighton in 2014 inheriting an underachieving program. The veteran coach had an impressive resume’ having a run of four consecutive Sub-State appearances with the Millington Lady Trojans from 2007-10.
“I told the guys it’s been 7 years since I’ve won a district championship,” Gatlin said. “It feels great. We put a lot of work in. They put up with me for all the hard times I’ve gave them, me being demanding. I’m grateful for the ones who stuck around and did that. They reap the benefits of all the hard work, me pushing them to be better young men in the classroom and on the floor.”
After a stop at Southwind, Gatlin arrived to Tipton County with his son who was a standout at Munford Middle School. Taelyr arrived on campus with fellow classmates Lewis and Aaron Alston.
And sophomores at the time like Ethan Bell and Alex Malone were starting to tap into their potential. In three seasons the Cardinals kept making progress reaching the District 13-3A mountain top Tuesday night.
The team standing in Brighton’s way was traditional power Dyer County. The Choctaws were ahead early 8-4 in the first quarter when All-Tournament player Alston scored on a put-back basket.
The Cardinals outscored Dyer County 11-4 to close out the first quarter to take a 15-12 lead. Gatlin closed out the period with 7 points including a three-pointer.
Brighton used the defense of All-Tournament performer Malone to maintain the lead in the second quarter. Malone’s pressure on Choctaws guards led to steals and fast break buckets for Brighton.
The Cardinals went ahead 27-15 in the second quarter when Gatlin drained a triple. Later in the frame the advantage stayed in double figures when Malone hit a three-pointer.
Brighton was ahead 32-24 at the break. The Cardinals’ lead great to 56-36 entering the fourth quarter with Lewis taking over the game.
The junior guard drove to the rim attacking Dyer County big man Rico Quinton. Lewis made a reverse layup and on back-to-back plays drove to the rack confronting the center for 4 points.
“My mindset was to stay focus, pay hard every possession, get every loose ball we can,” Lewis said. “Coach Gatlin told us what to do. I tried to do every little thing he said to do.”
Listening to Coach Gatlin paid off as the Cardinals were about to pace themselves down the stretch to lock up the title.
Malone, Alston, Lewis and Gatlin were named to the All-Tournament team. And Gatlin was bestowed the honor of Tournament MVP to go along with his regular-season award.
“This means so much because we’ve worked very hard since day one,” Taelyr said. “Being out here with my Dad since my freshman year, we worked our tails off to help change this program.
“Getting a No. 1 seed and winning the championship is a big momentum push for the next round,” he continued. “’Not to seem, but to be champions’ it means not only try to be a champion, you have to act and be a champion off the court.”
The younger Gatlin said the bitter taste of defeats last year motivated the Cardinals all district season.
“Since last year we didn’t win, I didn’t get the MVP,” he noted. “My Daddy didn’t get Coach of the Year, I wanted to change the topic so he could get his moment to shine.”
The elder Gatlin received the final individual award of the night as Coach of the Year for the district. But the ultimate presentation on the evening was the first-place plaque to the Brighton Cardinals.
“Through the adversity we have faced, guys quitting the team for random reasons,” Gatlin recalled, “those same faithful seven and eight guys that kept coming to practice and kept putting it in, I’m just so grateful to have those guys, for them to get the benefits for getting the district championship.”
Taelyr said the Cardinals are ready to focus on the next step of getting the victory and some revenge on the Bartlett Panthers on Regional Saturday Night.
“They hit us hard last year,” he said. “We want to hit them back.”
The Cardinals will host the Bartlett Panthers Saturday at 7 p.m. Brighton is undefeated at home this season.
“We have to play with more desire and determination not to lose at home,” Coach Gatlin said. “I told the guys this is playing in our favor to have a Region championship at home.”
Brighton is the host site for the 2017 Region 7-3A Tournament this year. But for taking the next step, the Cardinal program took a moment to enjoy the night.
Before the team concluded the night with a prayer, Lewis tried to express what the team means to him.
“They mean a lot,” he said. “They simply mean a lot. That’s my family.”
Gatlin said when he arrived in Brighton three years ago, he came to the Cardinals with one son. Now the leader of the Cardinals has a roster full.
“All of them are like my son,” he said. “I chastise them the same way. They’re all like Taelyr, they’re going to get it the same way. For them to still have the relationship with me to talk about anything they need to talk about, it’s real special. It’s definitely family.
“We’ll have our moments when we’ll disagree about stuff,” Gatlin concluded. “We’ll have moments when we’ll fuss and argue about things. But we’re still family. And I love that.”