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GABRIEL STOVALL: Under coach Elliot Montgomery, Eagle’s Landing seems to be following Jonesboro path to success

Gabriel Stovall

Gabriel Stovall

How’s this for irony?

As I was getting ready to Facebook tag a few Eagle’s Landing coaches, parents and supports to this article by James Butler this article by James Butler regarding the boys basketball team’s resurgence, the tagging mechanism glitched, and instead of tagging Golden Eagles track and cross country coach Claud Spinks, my cursor on the screen toggled to another name instead.

Clay Crump.

If you’re a South Atlanta hoop head, Georgia high school basketball enthusiast or Southern Crescent/Henry County sports fan, you know the name because you recall what he did.

From the 2009-10 season through the 2012-13 campaign that culminated with a dominate Class AAAA championship run after dethroning mighty Columbia, Crump paced the sidelines for the most impressive four-year stretch of high school basketball Eagle’s Landing — and by extension, Henry County — had seen in years if not forever.

He did it with a core trio of guys named Desmond Ringer, Eric Wortham, Jr. and Isaiah Dennis — all kids who Crump had the privilege of raising up on varsity since their freshman years.

By the time Crump and company were cutting down the nets in Fort Valley, the Eagles had cemented themselves as one of Georgia’s best teams over the last two seasons, and in that fateful championship coronation year it was arguable that Eagle’s Landing was better than most teams in the state, regardless of classification.

But once the euphoria died down and Ringer, Dennis, Wortham and guys like Trevin Joseph and Chris Davenport graduated, the coaching muscle behind it all went away too as Crump took a job on the north side of the metro area.

Departing with them were the accolades and attention that usually follows an elite program. Over the last couple of seasons that followed, while Eagle’s Landing definitely wasn’t bad — the next team, coached by Eric Wortham, Sr., finished 21-6 with a perfect 14-0 region mark and runner up status in Region 4-AAAA — it wasn’t laden with super stars, and would not be easily confused with the aforementioned state juggernauts.

But just before you write off Eagle’s Landing as a one-and-done-for-good, you’d do well to pay attention to what coach Elliot Montgomery is doing right now with his youthful 16-1 bunch.

This team doesn’t have a ton of size. Malachi Rhodes, a freshman standing at 6-foot-6, is the team’s biggest “big.”

Experience isn’t abundant either. Yes, seven seniors adorn the roster, but two of them — leading scorers Jordan Lewis and Antonio Gibson — struggled last season as juniors. Rhodes is a freshman, and some of the best players on the team are underclassmen.

Lewis has turned into a sharp shooter, and Gibson — one of the state’s most electrifying football talents in 2015 — has gotten more comfortable as a scorer and energy player.

But where these Eagles strike gold is in their depth.

Montgomery has found ways to circumvent the size deficit by running a fast paced style of play complete with the flexibility to employ virtually his entire 12-man roster as difference makers in certain parts of the game.

They also benefit from having a coach in Montgomery who, in his second year at the helm — he also put a huge hand print on Wortham Sr.’s 2013-14 squad — has learned how to tailor his approach to his personnel’s strengths each year.

The more I see them, the more I feel like I’ve seen them before. So as I toggled through my mental Southern Crescent sports rolodex to find a like-comparison, one name kept coming to the forefront.

Jonesboro.

Put your eyes back in your sockets. I’m not trying to compare this year’s Eagle’s Landing squad to the two-time defending Class AAAA champs and current No. 1 Cardinals bunch.

I’m juxtaposing this current Eagle’s Landing team to what Jonesboro was, pre-dominance.

Before the coming of age of Tracy Hector, Austin Donaldson and James “M.J.” Walker, Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman was building solid, if not star-studded squads, with lesser known players like Patrick Petty, Duby Okeke and Cam Sutton — Sutton, now a Tennessee cornerback, was more known for his exploits on the football field.

If you’ll recall, when Eagle’s Landing “then” looked more like Jonesboro does “now,” it was the Petty, Okeke and Sutton led Cardinals who presented themselves as the Eagles’ constant thorn-in-the-side pest on their way to Class AAAA supremacy.

The 2011-12 Jonesboro Cardinals weren’t spectacular but were solid enough to make a Class AAAA semifinals appearance before succumbing to powerhouse Miller Grove. Then the following season when Eagle’s Landing joined the Region 4-AAAA party, it was the Cardinals who played them tighter than anyone in Georgia — including then four-time defending champion Columbia.

Both of Jonesboro’s games against the Eagles were overtime thrillers. The 48-45 setback in a full Jonesboro gym was decided on a controversial goaltending call on Okeke that some Jonesboro fans probably still talk about to this day. And the 58-54 OT loss six weeks later was for the region championship.

How did Maehlman’s rag-tag bunch (in comparison) nearly thwart the state’s best team twice in one season? It was through tough, pesky defense, smart play and a ball control offense that kept the Eagles’ offense — they were scoring over 70 points per game that year — from flying.

Fast forward to this season, and zoom the microscope in on Eagle’s Landing’s only loss so far. It was a 75-61 setback to Jonesboro. But the Eagles led 11-8 at the end of the first quarter before a 28-point second quarter explosion by the top-ranked Cardinals gave them a nine point halftime lead.

Jonesboro followed it up with an equally dynamic third quarter, and though Montgomery’s boys made a valiant effort to get back in it in the fourth quarter, the game was too far out of reach.

It wasn’t the same as the nail biters Maehlman’s old squads served up to the McDonough super team back in 2013. But the teams appear to be following the same formula.

Just as I recall Maehlman saying that his teams learned something that made them better each time out against Eagle’s Landing during that 2012-13 season, Montgomery said the same about his loss this year to Jonesboro.

“They made us change the way we play defense,” Montgomery said.

When Jonesboro proved it could play with and potentially beat the best the state had to offer, it shifted something in that program. The very next season when Jonesboro won the first of its back-to-back titles, it was done with a team that even Maehlman admitted should’ve been “a year a way” from even thinking about such success.

Too young. Too inexperienced. Too wet behind the ears. But confidence is one heck of an elixir. And when it became contagious during that 2012-13 season, other players, like Donaldson who was Petty’s backup that year, saw it and wanted to be a part of what the Cardinals were getting ready to build.

I believe Montgomery has that same appeal and potential affect. He’s got a true basketball mind. He ingratiates himself to his players, but without losing their respect. And the fact that he’s got some gifted young guns coming up the ranks doesn’t hurt either.

Is this my round-about way of trying to predict an Eagle’s Landing state title run next year? Nah. But I feel supremely confident in saying Eagle’s Landing’s success isn’t a fluke. And I don’t believe it’s the pinnacle either.

Anybody knows when it comes to high school basketball, if you’ve got a solid nucleus of talent and a good, cerebral coach, you’re just one big time transfer away from doing some special things.

Don’t be surprised if Eagle’s Landing soon becomes the next special thing — again.

Gabriel Stovall is the founding editor of thecrescentbuzz.com. He can be reached for story ideas and input at gstovall@thecrescentbuzz.com. Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1, and follow us @crescent_buzz. 

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