By Gabriel Stovall
JONESBORO, Ga. — Jordan Black used the same word several times over to describe the transformation he’s witnessed — and been a part of — for Mundy’s Mill basketball.
“Astonishing,” he says before pausing, perhaps to try and conjure up another adjective. He couldn’t do it.
“It’s just really astonishing,” he continued. “Unbelievable and astonishing.”
Black, a 6-foot-7 senior forward isn’t just babbling when he says that. Neither is he parroting the words of someone else who has more personal experience within the program than he does. Black, a Pointe South Middle School product, was there in the beginning of third-year coach Dwight Callaway’s tenure.
Callaway himself can tell you about what he saw and what he heard during that first season — a 9-win campaign back in the 2016-17 season.
“We got laughed at in some games,” Callaway said. “In one game that first year I started five sophomores. Against the talented MJ Walker Jonesboro squad, I started three sophomores with freshmen. But I’ve been preparing those guys. Where I’m from, I’ve seen guys do it that way.”
And the Tigers definitely took their lumps, including a 47-point loss to Tucker, two losses to the aforementioned Jonesboro juggernaut by a combined deficit of 75 points, a 20-point setback to Morrow and a 17-point thrashing at the hands of Mount Zion.
It was a combination of variables that contributed to that 9-15 campaign. Of course there comes the typical growing pains of a program and new coach trying to figure each other out.
Coach Michael Elliot, Callaway’s predecessor, coached his last team to a 19-11 mark overall, a 12-6 Region 4A-AAAAA and a trip to the Class AAAAA Sweet 16. But when he departed, so too did eight seniors, leaving talent cupboard somewhat bare according to Callaway’s assessment.
Callaway said he kind of knew what he was getting into, but he was ready to take on the challenge, based on what he forecasted for the program’s future.
“I saw the raw potential,” Callaway said. “When I first got the job, after those eight seniors graduated it only left me with two returning guys who could play varsity for us, period. And they weren’t starters. So I had a lot of JV players that had to play my first season. I started those younger guys when my seniors weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing. So you can say we were in a rebuilding stage, but it gave us an opportunity to build the program the way we wanted.”
Black was one of those young players who heard the jeers and laughter when he lined up against the Jonesboros and Tuckers of the world as an underclassmen. Fast forward to this season though, and Mundy’s Mill is no longer a laughing matter. At 22-7, this is the first 20-win Mundy’s Mill team since the state tourney 2007-08 bunch.
It has the chance to push into the Elite Eight with a win Wednesday night against Bradwell Institute. And in case you needed more proof of the emergence of Mundy’s Mill basketball, Black, along with fellow senior, 6-foot-5 forward Rayquan Brown, represents a group of Tigers getting solid looks from college programs.
If you’re looking for a turning point in the program’s fortunes, you can actually peek back at last year’s region tournament game against Tucker.
“It was a triple overtime game where we came in as the sixth seed and they were the third seed,” Callaway said. “We went into triple OT with them, and even though we lost, I remember telling my coach that I can see us turning a heavy corner from that previous year. But that game was the defining moment for where we were. We showed we could compete with the best.”
Black remembers that one too, calling the 83-80 loss a team-booster.
“That gave us a ton of confidence,” Black said. “We faced a lot of adversity. Our backs were against the wall. We knew we could get the job done against any team we played. That season last year, we had an ok season, but this year’s been phenomenal. It’s been one for the record books.”
That game propelled Mundy’s Mill to the point where it had enough swagger to go into Tucker and and push for a different result the first time the Tigers played their region rival this year.
“Hence, the first game against them of the season, we went there and beat them by 15 at their place,” Callaway said. “Even though we lost the last two in the regular season, we are still the only team in the region to beat them.”
And Black says he wants another chance to prove that Tucker doesn’t have the Tigers’ number. Tucker did bounce back to beat Mundy’s Mill in the second regular season game and in the region championship matchup.
“I feel like we had a good mindset playing against them this year, but unfortunately we fell to them in the region championship,” Black said. “I hope to see them again at state.”
If that happens, that’ll mean that both Tucker and Mundy’s Mill will have advanced through the Class AAAAAA state tournament bracket to meet in the state championship game — a destination that Black doesn’t feel is out of the question.
“I feel like we can go as far as we choose to take us,” Black said. “We’re our own enemies. We sell ourselves short sometimes. Actually, we feel like we can win the whole thing. We don’t see any opponents in our way that we can’t handle. We just have to stay disciplined in times of adversity.”
Black said discipline is something that he’s had to hone in on as he’s matured as a player. Anyone who’s watched him play knows he likes to chirp at the fans and players a bit in the midst of a game. He said it’s not something people should take too seriously — just a mixture of him having fun and him showing how much he loves the game of basketball.
“I feel like that kind of stuff runs in my family,” he said. “My cousin is Antonio Blakeney (formerly of LSU and now on the Chicago Bulls’ roster), and we’re from Florida, and we just play with that dog in us. We take the game emotionally, and sometimes we love the game so much we can’t control our emotions. But that’s where the discipline steps in. We have to have that to succeed.”
Brown said part of the antics, too, is just a sign of how much he and his teammates enjoy being with each other on and off the court.
“For me, the turning point was after my junior year, coming into this summer,” Brown said. “Last year, we had a good team. We had a lot of talent, but the only thing was just couldn’t play together. We couldn’t gel together. But this year, we come together and we just all have fun with each other and compete and play hard together.”
Both Brown and Black have been getting their fair share of scholarship offers and recruiting attention from NCAA Division I schools down to the D-3 and JUCO level. Schools like UNC-Asheville, Catawba, Lees-McRae. Black said he’s probably going to make a college decision shortly after their season is over.
First thing’s first. Callaway and company are trying to chase down that school record for wins in a season. That’s 25 from that 2007-08 squad. Regardless of what happens, Callaway said he’s optimistic and excited about what’s in store for his program.
“Our guys have done some great things on and off the court, and I really think our future is bright,” he said. “We’ve got three strong seniors making some heavy contributions, like Jordan and Rayquan and our Demarcus Fannin. That’s our big three. But we’ve got a great young guard coming back along with a couple of others who should contribute for us.
“It’s awesome seeing the maturation process and the skill sets really develop. Just watching these players and this team and program grow in general, it’s really been great.”