By Gabriel Stovall
PEACHTREE CITY, Ga. – Apologies to Northgate, but when the McIntosh boys’ basketball team easily dispatched of
the Vikings 71-37 Friday night, it wasn’t really that particular game that meant the most to coach Jason Eisele’s team.
Sure, it was the clincher to 25-0, the Chiefs’ first undefeated regular season in school history. And yes, it touched off a celebration fit for popular St. Louis area rapper Nelly – yes, Nelly really showed up at the end of the game, much to the surprise and glee of a gym full of high schoolers.
But if you want to know when undefeated truly became a “thing” for McIntosh, go back to last Tuesday night’s 86-61 rout of Mundy’s Mill.
Defending Region 4-AAAAA champion Mundy’s Mill. Yeah, now you’re getting the picture.
If you’re just now jumping on the McIntosh bandwagon, you may not have been around when the Tigers beat the Chiefs by two after the Chiefs had as much as a 20-point cushion on Mundy’s Mill.
Mundy’s Mill went on to win the 2013-14 region title, and the Chiefs were stopped in the second round of the state tournament in a way almost identical to the Mundy’s Mill debacle.
Enter the importance of Tuesday night’s game in Jonesboro. Had it been played at McIntosh, in front of the Chiefs’ raucous home crowd, probably not as big of a deal.
But walking into the Mundy’s Mill gym did something to sort of jog the Chiefs’ collective memory, and help them remember that as nice as 25-0 could be, it was merely a subplot to this season’s main objective.
“Our real goal is not an undefeated season,” Eisele said. “We want a banner to hang up in those rafters. I think our guys remembered that when we walked into Mundy’s Mill’s gym Tuesday.”
And when they looked up, they saw the 2013-14 Region 4-AAAAA championship banner. The one that McIntosh probably thinks it should’ve won last year.
According to junior power forward Chase Walter, the view Tuesday night added an extra gear to McIntosh’s motor.
“Oh it gave us tons of fuel,” Walter said of seeing the Tigers’ championship banner hanging over their heads. “We’re playing at Mundy’s Mill. That banner is hanging up in their gym. It fueled us even more to go out there and beat them by 30.”
Well, it wasn’t exactly a 30 point margin. But the 86-61 win in a game that was never close was a sign to both Walter and Eisele that this team is poised to exorcise the demons of last season’s heartbreak.
“Just thinking about how we came up short against those guys last year, that’s definitely been fueling us for this entire year,” said Walter who had 17 points, 12 boards and three blocks against the Tigers.
And if it sounds like something Walter’s coach would say, well, you’re right.
“I think last year losing by two points against Mundy’s Mill after being up big, and then losing by two points in the second round of state after being up big, I think it’s just stayed with us all during the offseason, through the summer and the fall and just all season,” Eisele said.
So that means when McIntosh plays its first Region 4-AAAAA tournament game Thursday against either Ola or Forest Park, there shouldn’t have to be much Knute Rockne-esque rhetoric from Eisele.
“I think they’re focused,” he said. “At this point, there’s really nothing I need to do to motivate them or focus them. I think the past experiences are what’s focusing them. They know what they need to do to get over the top.”
And it showed in Friday’s domination over a not-too-great Northgate squad. But some may have said the same thing about the Mundy’s Mill bunch that knocked McIntosh off last season.
That’s why senior guard Zach Blair – one of just two seniors on the state’s No. 2-ranked squad – said he could see the difference in how his teammates handled teams they should beat this year, as opposed to past times.
“It feels great to be able to be undefeated because last year we had a similarly talented team, but we struggled to finish games at times – games we should’ve won,” Blair said. “But this year everyone’s understood their role and really came together to finish 25-0. Now we just hope we can keep it up in the region tournament and state playoffs.”
The Chiefs have the team to do it. Guard play is impeccable with high-scoring junior duo Jordan Lyons (23 points vs. Northgate) and Will Washington (10 points, 9 assists, 2 steals vs. Northgate) pacing the backcourt. And the emergence of 6-foot-6 Walter, who’s playing in his first bit of high school basketball, and 6-foot-6, 220 pound junior Dishon Lowery rounds the team out inside.
It’s the best combination of skill Eisele said he’s ever had since he came to the school for the 2005-06 season.
“Oh definitely, this is the best team I’ve coached by far,” Eisele said. “I’ve had other great teams with great talent, but this team is so balanced. Other teams in the past have had great guard play or great post play. But to have it all in the same team really helps a lot.”
Perhaps the scariest fact about it all for Region 4-AAAAA foes is that the entire team, minus Blair and Phil Vincent, the team’s only other senior, returns for the 2015-16 season.
Another 25-0 season? Back-to-back region and state championships? A permanent McIntosh legend that could be matched but never surpassed?
Easy there, says Eisele.
“Oh it’s great to be where we are,” he said. “But the message in the locker room is we’re 0-0 now. Nothing we’ve done means anything. Our next loss may be our last one. No doubt next year’s team will be good and give us a great opportunity, but we’re not even worry about that right now.
“We gotta take care of 2015 first.”