Stephenson High School head girls’ basketball coach Dennis Watkins is a three-time state championship coach that has developed his athletes on the court and in the class room.
The state titles are great for the trophy case, but Watkins is probably more proud of his athletes’ academic accomplishments during his 22 seasons at the helm of the Stephenson program.
Two of his state title teams (2008 and 2015) had 10 players from each team offered basketball scholarships as their high school careers came to a close.
“Developing great basketball players is a key to longevity in the coaching world, but our job is so much more,” said Watkins. “We want to develop people who can go out into the world as good people and have the opportunity to advance themselves and be a positive influence as well.”
Stressing academics as part of being on the team has been at the root of Watkins’ success over the years with two players being named valedictorian and one salutatorian at Stephenson under the oversight of Watkins and his staff. Watkins has accumulated a 479-163 record as the team heads into the final two weeks of the 2020 regular season.
“We require our players to attend our study table if they have less than a 3.5 grade-point-average,” Watkins stated. “If not, they can get their teachers to tutor them.”
During Watkins time at Stephenson he has only lost two players to academic ineligibility.
The dedication to academics and discipline has turned into more than 50 basketball scholarship opportunities for students who played for Watkins as well as numerous academic rides to further their education and playing careers.
The 2008 Class 5A state championship team went 29-3 and 10 players were offered basketball/academic scholarships at various schools around the country.
The 10 included the late Charmaine Ross (West Georgia/Hope Scholarship) who passed away in a car accident two years ago, Clayton County firefighter/paramedic Yasheeka Jones (Fort Valley State), Kayla Atkins (Emmanuel College), Keniqua Wyche (Grambling State University), Schyanne Halfkenny (Manhattan College), Kirsten Robinson (Columbia College/Georgia Southern), the head basketball coach at Atlanta Classical Academy; Taylor Turnbow (LSU), a former coach who now does podcasts; Rudie Denson (Chattanooga State Community College/Trinity International, IL), assistant coach at Point University; Jheanell Stephenson (Georgia State), a Delta Airlines flight attendant; Jylisa Williams (Georgia State/Lakehead University, Ontario, Canada), Supervisor of Patient Access at Egleston Childern’s Healthcare of Atlanta; Prittany White (Air Force Academy), Air Force Captain serving oversees; and Sheila Bradley who had five scholarship offers and decided to not play basketball.
“Coach Watkins and the staff really stressed academics and discipline, including things like being on time,” said Captain White, who has served in Afganistan and is currently in the Netherlands. “If your GPA was not where it should be you paid the consequences. We learned to have fun as a team, but to take care of our business in all phases. It really helped us be prepared for the future.”
The 2008 team only allowed one playoff team (Mill Creek semifinals) score more than 43 points (51) including the title game victory against DeKalb rival Redan (58-43). A team that grew up together and developed the kind of chemistry all coaches want from their players.
“We all grew up playing together and became a tight group,” said All-State guard Jylisa Williams who was inducted into the Lakehead University (Ontario, Canada) Hall of Fame last fall. “We knew we would not play if we did not have discipline and our academics in order. He helped many of us make it through and we knew if we did not do right that the consequence was losing basketball.”
The team’s three losses included Region 2-AAAAA defeats by five points each to Luella and Douglass. They would beat both teams twice in the season including Luella in the region semifinals and Douglass in the region championship game. The third loss was a four-point decision to Winter Haven (FL) in a holiday tournament in South Carolina. Williams scored 503 points (17.0/game) and Turnbow scored 319 points (10.0/game) and pulled down 349 rebounds (10.9).
“It took so many people to win that state title including the coaches, players, students, teachers, fans and of course the parents,” said Watkins. “The entire school and community are part of these players being successful on the court and becoming who they are today.”
Since that season Watkins’ squads have won 256 games and another Class 5A state title in 2015 that included hostile road wins as a No. 3 seed over Lithia Springs 74-49 and over ranked teams No. 1 Brunswick 80-70 and No. 4 Sequoyah 55-52 in the first three rounds. The semifinals were a match up with No. 8 Forest Park whom they dispatched 55-44 at Fort Valley State. The state title game had them facing No. 2 Mays whom they had lost to twice in region play. The Lady Jaguars came away with a 65-56 win to claim the championship trophy.
Davion Wingate scored 612 points (18.5/game) to lead the way that season on the way to signing with Stoneybrook while teammates Terrianna Cave (314 points) and Chloe Culpepper (302 points) would sign with West Georgia and West Alabama, respectively.
Other players to get academic and athletic scholarships included Stephenson valedictorian Charbornay Johnson (Georgia Tech), Dazjah Williams (Montreal College), Nalijah Winfield (Atlanta Metro), Vadarius Scott (Chattanooga Community College), Rhein Beamon (Georgia Southern), Breanna Saunders (Charleston Southern) and Sydney Saxton (Arkansas Baptist).
Notable players from other teams includes Stephenson’s 2012 valedictorian Joylyn Stroud and 2014 salutatorian Nadaysia Brooks.
Stroud scored 300 points (10.0/game) and pulled down 249 rebounds (8.3/game) that season on a team that went 25-5, won its region (2-5A) and lost a 2-point heartbreaker in the second round of the state playoffs.
The 2014 team with Brooks (3.0 points/game, 2.3 rebounds/game) playing in 30 games went 21-10 and lost in the Elite 8 of the state playoffs to region and DeKalb rival Southwest DeKalb.
“I tell the players they can’t take any of it for granted,” said Watkins. “They are blessed to have these opportunities. The goal is to help the players get scholarships, whether it be athletic or academic, to help their parents out while opening up more for them as they grow into adults.”
Source: DCSD Athletics