Strong team chemistry has helped spark Gator turnaround

Kyle Riviere
kriviere@weeklycitizen.com
Travis Uzee and his St. Amant Gators have gone from last in the district to competing for the district crown. Photo by DKMoon Photography.

Travis Uzee was faced with a tall task last year as he took over a St. Amant basketball program that had just graduated four of their five starters and many other contributing players.

He knew he had his work cut out for him as he and the team went into rebuilding mode. The young and inexperience roster took their lumps as they finished just 11-20 overall and 0-10 in District 5-5A.

Though the potential of players like Courtney Julien and Nick Griffin was there, Uzee didn't envision such a drastic turnaround to come for the program this early into his tenure.

Just a year after his team finished the district schedule winless, the Gators have been tied with Catholic for the District 5-5A lead on two separate occasions. They currently sit in second place.

There was no greater moment for St. Amant than on Feb. 6, when they came from 11 down to beat the Bears in a raucous Gold Dome. The victory was the biggest in Uzee's time with the Gators as they earned themselves a spot at the top of the district.

"I didn't think it would come this soon to be honest with you. I was thinking it would be four years away, but we got it in two years, and we knew it was a big game," Uzee said. "We told the kids all week, but that doesn't really affect our kids.

"They know it's going to be a team effort, and that's what it was. They weren't afraid of the big game. They were excited about the opportunity more than anything."

One of the biggest reasons for the team's great success this season has been their team chemistry. Coach Uzee continues to be amazed with how his team has come together and formed such a strong bond.

"When we've needed someone to make a play, they've made a play. When we've needed someone to make a rebound, they've made a rebound," Uzee said. "What we've been able to do these past two years is create a family. These kids just love to step up for the next guy."

One of those players that always seems to step up when they need him is Julien, the Texas State signee.

His junior season was his first year as a starter, and he quickly showed that he was one of the best players in the parish as he earned first-team all-district honors.

But Julien continued to grow as a player during the offseason. Now, he has made a case for being one of the best players in the state with his ability to carry his team each night.

Coach Uzee said that he had an interaction with Julien during the huge win over Catholic that perfectly represents his attitude as a player.

"Courtney and I have just had this bond over these past two years," Uzee said. "I just told him that it was time for him to carry us on his back and he looked at me and said, 'Yes, sir.' That's what that kid does. If I told him to jump off the roof of the Gold Dome, he would say, 'Yes, sir,' and then he would go and do it.

"He came alive in a lot of games that we've won. There have been a lot of games that we've been tight in, and he's come alive and made plays."

But for St. Amant, it hasn't been all about Julien. Everyone has stepped up in their transformation from worst to first in the district.

Griffin has been Julien's partner in crime. Crandell Christoff and Durell Smylie have been great inside, Travis Cole as emerged as a solid point guard and Carter Templet and Nick Fehn have given them great outside shooting.

Abilities aside, Coach Uzee thinks much of his team's success comes from the brotherhood they have formed on and off the court.

"It says a lot about our character," Uzee said. "It says a lot about our basketball family. They believe in each other."