By Gabriel Stovall
JONESBORO — When Carrollton boys basketball coach Tim Criswell finally got around to sitting down and watching some film of No. 1 Jonesboro, it was like being on the set of an old movie.
“It made me feel like Gene Hackman in the movie Hoosiers,” Criswell said. “I watched about 10 minutes of film, and I said I’d seen enough.”
The miniature scouting report Criswell offered up on the Cardinals sounded like a cliche. Extremely talented, lots of depth and well-coached are just a few of the terms he used to describe the defending Class AAAA champs.
But then Criswell gave extra kudos to Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman.
“Coach Maehlman does a great job with those kids,” he said. “I don’t think people give as much credit to him as he deserves for being able to get that many players to come together and then play well. It’s a great compliment to him. It’s not easy to do.”
Maehlman’s bunch will carry a 30-1 overall record into Thursday night’s Class AAAA championship game which is scheduled for an 8:45 p.m. tip at the Macon Coliseum.
But Criswell’s Carrollton squad is no slouch either. The No. 5 Trojans (29-2) are on a 23 game winning streak. The Trojans haven’t lost since dropping a 67-59 decision to Tri-Cities.
Aside from a few close calls after that game, Criswell said he’s seen enough from his senior-laden team to convince him that Carrollton is not facing Jonesboro in its first ever state championship game by some fluke or happenstance.
“We’ve got different guys who do different things to help us this year,” said Criswell, who’s been Carrollton’s coach for 25 seasons. “I’ve been coaching a pretty good while, and we’ve often had good teams with similar players that do the same kind of things. But this team’s got post players, shooters, slashers and point guards, and I think the key has been we’ve been able to take those pieces and put them together into a pretty good puzzle.”
Jonesboro point guard Austin Donaldson saw enough of Carrollton to vouch for its considerable talent.
“We stayed and watched them in West Georgia last Saturday,” Donaldson said. “They’re definitely a really good team. They’ve got a couple of really good players that can give you some trouble.”
Perhaps the biggest reason — literally and figuratively — for Carrollton’s success is 6-foot-8 250 pound center Montae Glenn. The Georgia Southern signee is pouring in 20 points per game while snagging 13 boards.
His presence, along with his 6-foot-5 companion Jarel Rowe, could possibly test the Cardinals in a way that they haven’t been tested — at least in the state of Georgia.
Jonesboro’s lone loss was to Montverde (Fla.) Academy. The nation’s top-ranked high school team has seven players 6-foot-7 or taller, including 7-foot-4 Florida State signee Jean Marc Christ Koumadje, and 7-footer Doral Moore.
Moore, a Wake Forest signee, played his first three years at Luella High in Locust Grove.
The Cardinals also faced Spain Park’s (Ala.) 6-foot-10 sophomore Austin Wiley during the Hilton Invitational at Norcross High earlier this season. So facing quality big men should be nothing new for Maehlman’s bunch.
“(Carrollton) definitely has some bigs and a couple of other players who are some really good, solid athletes,” Maehlman said. “We’ve faced some guys like that before, and our guys have always gotten up for the challenge.”
“I think as long as we stay with our game plan and do the things we do, we’ll be fine,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Jonesboro coming in is health. Tracy Hector, Jonesboro’s 6-foot-6 forward, is operating at about 70 percent, according to Maehlman.
Junior Zerrick Cooper has been out all season, while talented freshman Jamari Smith, who injured his hand before the postseason, was rumored to possibly be able to play Thursday, but Maehlman said they’d keep him out.
“He’s got the cast off, but his hand is still pretty swollen,” he said. “We’re not going to jeopardize anything for Jamari for his next three years just for him to play one game.”
Maehlman said “about six or seven guys” have been playing while nicked up, and he’s tried to get them as much rest as possible in between games, even as the chance to win back-to-back titles looms.
“We’ve just been trying to rest those guys during the week and for practices, and just let them play on game day,” Maehlman said. “It’s been that way for the last few weeks now. Even in practice, we try not to do too much live stuff, because we don’t want anymore injuries.”
Preserving the health of backcourt players like James “MJ” Walker (17.7 ppg) and DeAntre Mack (12.5 ppg) is paramount. If Carrollton has the size advantage in the front court, Criswell says Jonesboro’s perimeter players could possibly make up for that.
“Hopefully us having a little size will help us keep them from crashing the boards offensively and getting those second, third and fourth shots, because that, in addition to their talent, is just something they do so well,” Criswell said. “But nobody else has done it all season, and I don’t know if we can. But I think they also have a little guard size and speed advantage, so that may cause everything to neutralize a little bit.”
The Trojans coach said he’s proud of his group of seniors which includes guards Dontae Bonner, TJ Cochran and his son Cooper Criswell for doing what it took to get them to this point.
“It’s the first time being on this stage for these boys, and with the (Carrollton) girls also playing for a state title, it makes it pretty exciting around here,” Tim Criswell said. “These kids have grown up in the community, and last year we had a disappointing ending a little bit, and those seniors were pretty much bent on the fact that we’re gonna get there this year.
“They put in the work in the weight room, in the spring and summer and preseason, and their getting the fruits of their labor now. I’m real proud of them.”
Still, he knows the kind of effort his players will need in the final game of the season to be able to dethrone the champs.
“It’ll be a major, major challenge for us,” he said. “I think Jonesboro’s as good as there is in the state for all classifications. We’re going to have to play a superb game to have a chance. Good news is, if there is any good news, we don’t have to play a best three out of five series or anything like that. It’s a one game shot. And you never know what can happen in a basketball game.”