ZEBULON, Ga. — The ride home on the bus from Pike County was much less awkward for Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman than his walk to the bus from the school’s locker rooms.
Maehlman’s top-ranked Cardinals had just put the finishing touches on a ridiculous 115-14 win against the Pirates, and while some folks in Pirate Nation were understanding — including Pike County’s principal and coaches — others were not.
“I had to make sure to walk with my wife to the bus after the game,” Maehlman said. “Some of their people were kind of verbally abusing me afterward a bit, saying that I didn’t have any class and all that kind of stuff.”
Maehlman remembers one particularly disgruntled Pike fan.
“She came up to me kind of sarcastically and all, and was like, ‘Coach, congratulations. Way to run up the score on these kids,’” he said. “I told her that I was sorry and those weren’t my intentions. And she just said, ‘Well, that’s what you did.’”
The 101-point beatdown may have been as conflicting to Maehlman as it was embarrassing for Pike County. To be sure, nobody believed Pike would have a chance to stay in this game at all, judging by the team’s 1-17 mark, an average margin of defeat close to 32 points per game and having been outscored by the defending state champs 242-69 in the schools’ last three meetings dating back to last season.
But even Maehlman struggled to come up with an explanation for why the game grew so lopsided so fast — Jonesboro was up 74-12 at halftime.
“I don’t know,” Maehlman said after a long pause. “We just played starters for the first half and pulled them out. We went with second and third string guys, and by the time we got to the fourth quarter we were down to just our ninth and 10th graders.”
But despite the personnel switches, Maehlman said he kept his game strategy the same — unapologetically.
“We just continued to do what we do,” he said. “I mean what were we supposed to do? We weren’t going to drop back and go into a 2-3 zone and tell our freshmen guys not to look to score. That’s not what we do. We continued to press full, and do our half court stuff and do it with guys who don’t get the chance to do it very often.”
Of course the knee-jerk reaction to seeing a high school team beat up on another high school team by 100 points is, “Why not just call off the dogs completely?” But that sentiment is usually spoken by folks — like sportswriters — who don’t coach for a living, not to mention coaching an emerging national power in high school athletics.
When you go from playing the Monteverde and Oak Hill Academies and the Chino Hills squads of the world down to playing a, well, let’s just call it what it is — a fairly soft Region 4-AAAA — it may be hard for the casual fan to understand how next-to-impossible it is to get your team to downshift its competitive juices and expectations — especially when you’re trying to win a third straight state championship.
“At this point of the year, we’re not trying to start work on things that we know we’re not going to do or use when it comes state playoffs time,” Maehlman said.
And for those who would question Maehlman’s ethics, he had this to say:
“Everyone who knows me and the program we run knows that I’m not out here just trying to deliberately beat someone by 100 points,” Maehlman said. “But on the flip side, because you’re playing a team that’s not very good, you’re not going to go out and just sit back and try not to execute. That’s not what we do. It’s terrible and completely not fair to the kids who work their butts off for me to stick them in the game and basically tell them not to do anything.”
As you can probably tell, Maehlman had a little aura of indignation in his tone about the way his team’s win may be perceived. And honestly, the more I listened to him talk, the more I found myself vibing with his perspective.
The Jonesboro program has matured past the days of just being content with winning region championships and making hollow state tournament appearances. The Cardinals play a national schedule now — they’ll travel to Virginia Tuesday to face the No. 3 team in the nation, according to maxpreps.com, in Oak Hill Academy.
And as soon as they get back, it’s region tourney time, then the in-earnest beginning of their quest for the state title hat trick, all with very little practice time in between.
So Maehlman said that he tries to take advantage of lopsided contests by turning them into glorified workout sessions, particularly for his younger athletes, as a way to build depth. That’s no offense to the opposition. It’s just the reality of things when you’re considered one of the top squads in the nation.
And carrying such a distinction means your goals are going to look different than that of a team just trying to sneak into the region tournament’s back door. Maehlman said he knows that his team — as good as they may be, juxtaposed to others in Class AAAA — still needs work on team chemistry and cohesiveness to truly be, in his eyes, a championship caliber bunch for the third year in a row.
Maehlman said his team, from top to bottom, found that in Zebulon Saturday night.
“Tonight after the win, you know, we’ve been searching for our kids to come together and have fun all season long,” he said. “And tonight, for the first time this season we’ve got guys laughing and joking with each other, about each other and enjoying each other on the bus ride home. We weren’t out there jaw-jacking or making fun of the other team or getting all in their face or anything like that. We just went out and had a bunch of fun.
“We haven’t done that all year. It sucks it had to be to the avail of 12 or 13 other kids on the other side, but like I said, we’re trying to accomplish something, and it’s getting close to that time.”
Maehlman doesn’t say that from the vantage point of being an entitled coach who walks around with an inherited silver spoon of a program in his mouth. Georgia hoop heads from way back will remember a time when Jonesboro basketball more closely resembled Pike County than the Jonesboro you know and ogle at today.
The coach remembers his first days on the job some 16 years ago when he was brought on under former varsity coach Mack Cain to head up the freshman boys team.
“We were pretty bad back then,” Maehlman said. “We were losing a lot. We were seen as a laughingstock in Clayton County and the state, really. Two nights a week were getting beaten by 60 points to teams like Riverdale when they had Josh Powell and Chris McFarland, and North Clayton when they had Anthony Rice. And Morrow was loaded back then too.
“I remember my kids didn’t want to get on the bus to go to North Clayton. That was when they had the DJ on the stage playing the rap music which was totally uncensored back then, and I’m sitting there thinking ‘This environment is awesome,’ while my kids were scared to get off the bench to go warm up. We knew we were gonna get murdered each night.
“But we still continued to coach our butts off those first few years. We were terrible. Awful. But we didn’t give up.”
Maehlman said he saw something special in that first group of ninth graders he took on. He moved up with them when they became sophomores and and started playing JV. That’s when the brothers Douglas — Harry and Tony — were coming on the scene.
And then, sort of as a prophetic utterance, Maehlman did something that he said drew a couple of hard eye rolls from coach Cain.
“After our JV team finished undefeated, I made a t-shirt that said on the back, “The Dynasty Has Begun.” Maehlman said. “Coach Cain said, ‘I can’t believe you made that shirt.’”
But in hindsight, the bold gesture proved to be accurate.
The next year, Jonesboro’s 2002-03 bunch made the state playoffs for the first time since 1980 and progressed to the Final Four, followed by a state championship game appearance the following season, and the rest has been history. Maehlman coached teams have only missed the postseason once.
So fast forward to Saturday January 30, 2016 and Maehlman is still coaching his butt off, even with a roster full of enviable talent. It’s not because he wants to stick it to some poor, lowly team. It’s because that’s the only way he knows how to coach. It’s how he coached when his teams were bad, and it’s how he coaches now that the Cardinals are getting national acclaim while carrying one of the best players in the country in MJ Walker — a Clayton County native — on its roster.
It’s how they got to where they are in the first place.
And doing it with local, homegrown kids is something Maehlman said he takes much pride in.
“I think winning a state championship is every coach’s obvious goal,” he said. “But for a while, after we’d get so far and get beat by the schools like Miller Grove, Columbia and Wheeler — all with four or five D-1 guys — I started to think it wasn’t possible to win like that at Jonesboro.
“You know, I’ve never gotten those kind of guys coming and just mysteriously popping up from miles and miles away. These kids we’re winning with now are coming from right here in Clayton County, and they’re proud to represent this program.”
In other words, it’s a program that never gets too big of an ego regardless of how big the numbers get on the scoreboard, simply because its coach remembers where it came from.
Gabriel Stovall is the founding editor of thecrescentbuzz.com. Reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org for feedback, tips or story ideas. Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1, or follow us @crescent_buzz.