Coach of the Winter

Five-time honoree Carterz deflects the credit

He may pay little attention to the personal milestones, but Al Carter’s players sure pay attention.

How so? Datwan Lewis has pictures of the two milestone victories his Crescent City Junior-Senior High School boys basketball coach attained in his time as a player.

“I celebrated it with the pictures I have from both games on my wall,” the Crescent City senior said. “He read about it, but he says he’s not that type of coach who celebrates. He’s not going to cherish it, but I do.

“I don’t think he knows how much we take it to heart what he does. We’ll tell him about it, but he always felt his job was to make us better. He still feels like he should never accept the praise.”

That’s the humble man the 60-year-old Carter is. And as humble as he may seem, he is a proud of his latest team. The Raiders finished 17-12 and won their third consecutive District 8-1A championship with a practically new team compared to the one that went to the Final Four the year before.

Carter is the Daily News as the Coach of the Winter Season, an award he has collected three straight years and an unprecedented fifth time overall, more than any other coach.

He’s the first person to win a coach of the season honor three straight times. The only other person to receive coach of the season accolades as many as three times is Crescent City colleague Holly Pickens, who won twice for volleyball and once for girls basketball.

Carter deflects praise.

“Me getting that honor means I had good basketball players and kids who can play the sport,” he said. “They’re coachable kids who do what they’re asked by Pooh (assistant coach Clarence Williams) and myself. As a matter of fact, I’ve got to give Pooh Bear a lot of props for all he’s done. The respect those young men have for him and he demands as much as I do. We’ve done this a long time together.”

Williams has been the one steady factor in all the honors he’s won, dating back to the 2003-04 season when the Raiders won the District 8-2A championship. Carter also won for the 2008-09 season as well as these last three years.

This one may be the most memorable. Carter lost two-time Daily News Prep Boys Basketball Player of the Year and point guard Kenton Bibbs to graduation, as well as long-range shooter Gary Mims. And after having an All-County season, too, Laron Fells could not compete this winter for the Raiders because he was too old.

But Lewis provided the leadership the team needed. And the other parts of the puzzle fit nicely after a slow start. Victor Johnson and Reggie Robinson led the way at the guard positions and freshman Michael Brooks and sophomore Malcolm McHellen developed down low for Lewis to get some help. Add the work of reserves Dantavious Kelly and Dadrian Ellis and the Raiders were on their way to another district championship.

“I’m involved every day with those guys,” Carter said. “The offseason is the most important part of basketball. You’ve got to have good players who are prepared and they’ve got to really understand the importance of doing offseason work to become better athletes. They have to do the things that make them stronger and quicker and faster and jump higher. It’s not a four-month situation anymore. If you do it like that, it shows up eventually when it counts most.”

The Raiders found themselves in a wild District 8-1A championship with district newcomer Pahokee, which had to make the 260-mile trip to Crescent City’s gym. In a matchup that saw Lewis score 27 points and Johnson put in 18 points, the Raiders outlasted Pahokee, 83-74, for the title. A week later, the Raiders played high-intensity defense in handily taking down Dixie County, 74-42, to advance to one of the most memorable basketball games any Putnam County fan has ever seen. Dixie County served as Carter’s 250th career victory, just over two years after he picked up win No. 200 when Lewis was a sophomore.

The Raiders rebounded from a 15-point deficit against Bell, took the lead only to see the Bulldogs tie it with a 3-point field goal with 13.6 seconds to go. They fell behind again in overtime, watched as Jeremiah Gilyard, who came back strong after a foot injury sidelined him most of the year, hit three free throws to tie the game. They lost on a Johnson blocking foul with one second to go, leading to the go-ahead free throw and the 53-52 Region 4-1A championship win.

Though players like Lewis, Ellis, Kelly and Zack Robinson graduate, Carter is enthused over next year with the cast that returns.

And the man with a 250-188 record will go on picking up wins, maybe picking up a few more milestones.

But it’s all about the kids who did it – not him.

“He’s a humble man, but he deserves everything he gets,” Lewis said. “All of my hard work and dedication is because of him. He’s not worried about his own accolades. He’s about teaching us how to be men and how to be successful. He’s a great guy who looks out for us.

“The guys who come back next year are blessed because they are getting one of the best coaches ever.”