Success in youth travel sports doesn’t always translate up to the high school level, especially in communities with multiple schools.
That’s because once travel season is over players go their separate ways to their respective school campuses and join up with the programs there. But what happens when a group of young athletes rises through the ranks of local youth recreational teams, middle school, and on up into varsity. Baldwin County may be getting a firsthand look at such an experiment as a local AAU team prepares to transition up to the varsity level following highly successful careers in youth rec leagues and at middle school.
Members of the locally-sourced Celtics Flight 2023 14U basketball team boast resumés filled with accomplishments like two-time recreation league state champs in addition to a couple of state runner-up titles, middle school state champs, and most recently a No. 20 ranking among 14U AAU teams in the country. Although the team, head coached by Will Burnett, plays under the well-known Atlanta Celtics AAU program banner, the entire roster is from Baldwin or an immediately surrounding county, which is fairly uncommon among AAU programs according to the team’s head coach.
“Normally what happens with most AAU teams, especially the ones out of Atlanta, they have kids from all over Atlanta,” Burnett said. “Some even bring kids in from neighboring states.”
The head coach added that his team plays as part of the Atlanta Celtics program so it can get access to bigger, more competitive tournaments as well as other perks.
The Celtics Flight 2023 team is in the midst of a grueling summer schedule that began three months ago and has taken them all over the Southeast, including trips to tournaments held in Nashville, Tenn., Chattanooga, Tenn., Birmingham, Ala., and Kentucky. Burnett says he wants his team to be well-traveled, not just so it can see great competition, but so the players can see what lies outside of Milledgeville and the Atlanta area.
The team hasn’t been together since all the players ages sat in single digits, but that’s where their basketball journeys all started. The picture became clearer once they reached Oak Hill Middle School together and they enjoyed loads of success there. Burnett brought the guys together for their first season of team travel ball in March, and knew he had something special.
“Each kid has his own personality,” Burnett said. “It’s just like reaching into a puzzle box, getting the pieces, and putting them together to make the puzzle complete. Each player complements one another and it makes the team work.”
He pointed out that the players’ knowledge of one another’s games and specialties is what makes them click. Each has his role and gladly sticks to it to make the team run efficiently. Shatavious Hogan stands at 6 feet, 2 inches tall, which is big for a rising freshman, but still not as tall as some of the competition the team sees on the 14U circuit. Burnett says his big man is up to any challenge though and happily guards players much larger in size. Kentay Kelsey serves as another of the team’s defensive specialists while Rudolph Satcher puts his high motor to good use on a consistent basis, and Jacobi Nixon has developed his skills to become a difference-maker. NBA superstars Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have been dubbed the “Splash Brothers” for their ability to hit shots from the outside. Well, if that’s the case then Celtics Flight 2023 has the Splash Triplets because Christian “Ice” Burnett, Daethan Harris, and Omari Miller all have the ability to make the referee throw his arms upward every time down the floor.
“Daethan is a going to give you 100 percent at all times,” Burnett said of Harris. “He’s a guy that hustles, takes charges, and can really shoot the three-ball.”
Harris is the son of now former Baldwin High School boys basketball coach Buck Harris who departed to accept the same position in Jones County. Christian Burnett is Coach Burnett’s son who has played travel and rec basketball since 7U.
“He’s a very high-I.Q. type of kid and kind of a coach on the floor that can shoot the cover off the basketball,” the coach said.
The roster sits at just seven players. Most teams like to have 10 so they can get full 5-on-5 scrimmages going at practice, but Burnett and his boys seem to be doing just fine with the smaller number.
The current AAU season up to this point has provided more ups than downs for the local team. The biggest down came at the very beginning as the players entered the opening tournament in Birmingham a bit shell-shocked according to Burnett. Flight 2023 lost all four games in that tourney, but it provided a valuable learning experience and introduction to the environment they had better get used to playing in. They would go on to defeat the No. 2 team in the country at a Chattanooga tournament before losing to the No. 7 team by just seven points at the Atlanta Tipoff Classic. That team now sits atop the rankings, proving just how tough a test that was.
The young men went on to compete at the Hoop Circuit South Central Regional Championship, a national qualifier, and won the whole thing. That earned them a No. 13 ranking as well as a spot at a Kentucky tournament and where they met more of the country’s top 14U talent. They did not perform up to their standards and returned home having dropped to No. 20 in the rankings, which is still an incredible feat. Flight 2023 got back on the horse last weekend and traveled to Atlanta where they went 3-1, good enough to hold onto that No. 20 ranking.
The AAU season runs through mid-July. The team will try to better its national ranking before the close of the campaign at more highly competitive tournaments.
Once that’s over the boys will be stepping up into the big leagues of high school varsity basketball, and Coach Burnett believes the group of six remaining in Baldwin County can really do something special before their high school careers are over if they stay together.
“I just feel like with everything they’ve done up to this point — going to four state championships at rec and winning two, going undefeated in middle school and winning a middle school state championship — it’s written all over the wall to me. These guys can get a couple of high school state championships,” he said.
The team is looking for sponsors to help them cover travel costs for future events. For more information, contact Coach Burnett at 478-414-8026.