MACON, Ga. — You’ve come a long way, Jonesboro.
I’m not talking about that short drive down I-75 from Clayton to Bibb County.
I mean the journey from good to great.
From the 78-75 overtime thriller win three seasons ago against No. 1 Alexander and a hot-like-fire Hassani Gravett (he poured in 46 points that night), when sophomore Zerrick Cooper nailed those unforgettable game clinching, one-handed free throws, and then cried like a baby in the postgame interview.
From the first time Austin Donaldson and MJ Walker got the chance to show off their clutch genes on the grand stage by making big bucket after big bucket down the stretch against Columbia that made us know this program had just reached grown man status.
From the times when coach Dan Maehlman played stall ball against a world-beater Eagle’s Landing team — and almost beat them — to now, a time when the Cardinals have become hunted prey. The game everyone on the circle schedules and everyone packs out the gym to see.
Now, stretch back with me to over a decade ago when Maehlman first stepped on campus at the Clayton County school with a sometimes competitive, sometimes also-ran basketball program as a ninth grade boys coach.
Juxtapose that, if you will, to a homegrown Cardinals squad, traveling the nation to play the Chino Hills, Oak Hill Academies and Montverdes of the world — complete with its own bluechip, 5-star talent in Walker, and all you can do is come up with a dozen different and creative ways to say the same thing.
Jonesboro has come a long, long way.
Three seasons ago when Jonesboro loaded the bus to head to Macon, they did it while partaking in the classic Cinderella story — a team that had a lot of young talent that looked a year, maybe two, away from truly competing for a state championship, but somehow rising up against the odds to play for it all in their first real season playing together as varsity starters.
The way they’d played during their improbable run made them no slouch in anyone’s eyes. But who really was going to give them a chance against Columbia, the former Class AAA juggernaut that had won three straight state titles before succumbing to Eagle’s Landing in the 2013 championship game?
The same group of people who thinks Liberty County has a chance to dethrone the current back-to-back kings of Class AAAA tonight — nobody.
Tonight at the old Macon Coloseum, destiny comes calling again. But my, how things have changed. I remember the last practice leading up to that Columbia game three years ago, and how everybody talked about just relaxing and treating it as another game and another team.
But you could see there was more than just the rudimentary respect for the opponent. You could hear it in Maehlman’s voice as he barked instructions to his relatively wet-behind-the-ears bunch.
You could see it in the intensity on their faces in the pre-game locker room in Macon. It wasn’t nervousness — rather a look of focus with a little bit of, “we’re not quite sure what to expect here, but we’re ready to find out” mixed in for good measure.
Now, Jonesboro knows exactly what to expect from one of the biggest stages in Georgia high school hoops. It knows what to expect from fans, media and casual onlookers alike, who expect to see the Cardinals hoist the state championship hardware for the third straight time.
It knows what to expect from a hungry opponent in Liberty County with an uber talented backcourt that wants to prove last season’s semifinal blowout at the hands of the top-ranked Cardinals was an aberration.
And honestly, Jonesboro should understand Liberty County’s hunger, because it wasn’t too long ago that the Cardinals were on the other side of the coin. They were the ones trying to prove they belong. They were the ones wanting to make sure folks knew they weren’t just “happy to be here.”
So for that reason, if you plan on watching this Jonesboro squad that — save the second round matchup with Carrollton and a midseason tussle with a pesky Henry County team — has rarely been challenged in Georgia, don’t look for hubris. Don’t look for cockiness. Don’t look for the Southside powerhouse to poo-poo the Panthers from Hinesville.
If anybody knows how possible it is for a No. 1 team to go down within the last few days of a basketball season, it’s Jonesboro. Because the Cardinals have been there, done that. Except they did it three seasons ago from the same hunter’s vantage point that their opponent should have tonight.
Tonight, for the second year in a row, they’ll be the ones who play host to the underdog. But Carrollton pushed the Cardinals to the limit last year. And because every team that has gotten to this point of the season is an excellent squad, don’t be surprised to see another nail biter this year.
Throw out last year’s 28 point beatdown. This is a different Liberty County ballclub. A one-loss team with arguably the best backcourt in juniors Davion Mitchell and football standout Richard LeCounte the Cardinals have seen in Georgia this year.
A year stronger and wiser, Liberty County is not only looking for payback, but a chance to start its own chapter of unprecedented basketball success with Mitchell and LeCounte returning with a young squad next season.
And when you put young, but seasoned talent and hunger together, you shouldn’t be shocked to get a recipe for the start of a dynasty.
Just ask Jonesboro.
It’s surreal to think that the Cardinals can be just the second team in Class AAAA history to win three state crowns in a row — especially when you consider how most folks tend to think nothing good comes out of Clayton County these days.
The Boys from the ‘Boro gladly carry the community on their backs. Call it a county-sized chip on their shoulders. But they also have the ability and humility to match that intangible desire to, in Young Jeezy vernacular, “put on for their city.”
That’s called maturity. And that’s what I think wins it this year for the Cardinals. Not just the fact that Walker is one of the nation’s best players. Not the fact that E.J. Lovett has emerged as a jump shooting assassin. And it’s not even the idea that Jamari Smith, Zerrick Cooper or two or three other players could emerge as the star on any given night.
It’s that the Cardinals respect the game. They respect their opponents. They respect each other and they respect their own rags-to-riches journey that got them where they are — even this season.
After the first game of the year, a narrow loss to Norcross, a visibly frustrated Maehlman questioned the chemistry of this team. He questioned the cohesiveness. State championships were probably the last thing on his mind as he looked at the foibles of a bunch of fresh faces gathered around one proven star.
But now, the coach will be the first to admit how tremendously this team has grown and matured over the course of one season. And, without reservation, he recently said he believes this team has, indeed, fashioned themselves into a state title caliber squad.
Why? Because now, despite all the accolades and expectations that have come their way from others who believed Jonesboro to be the state’s best team, these Cardinals now believe it for themselves.
“I try not to compare past teams to present ones,” Maehlman said. “When I was younger in my career, maybe I did that. But each team is different. There are some things this year’s team does better than last year’s team, and there are some things they do worse. But we’ve definitely come a long way. It’s just hard to measure because each year has so many things not in common with the last year.”
But with just 32 minutes left in the 2015-16 season, if the Cardinals can get win number 27 for the season tonight against a talented team with Jonesboro-like aspirations, they’ll have at least one thing in common with the two teams that came before them.
They’ll have their part in a high school basketball dynasty.
Gabriel Stovall is the founding editor of thecrescentbuzz.com. You can reach him for story ideas at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1. You can also follow thecrescentbuzz.com on Twitter @crescent_buzz.