Not only do coaches have the pressure of having to win games just to keep their jobs, they are also dealing with daily pressures off the field and off the court.
In addition to trying to bring a collection of personalities and talents together into one cohesive unit, they simultaneously have to keep their players grounded in school while shielding them from the temptations of society. Many times the coaches serve dual roles as both on-field coaches and parental figures to their players while trying to juggle responsibilities to their families at home. Many also teach academics classes at school, which means more sacrificed time away from their own families, along with the countless other things that all come with the job.
There was a time when I thought I wanted to make coaching my profession, but after working alongside high school coaches for over a decade now, I can safely say I’m perfectly content doing what I do now.
I’ve also said that the current crop of coaches we have in Walker County are among the best people I know, and we all should be thankful to have them in the positions they are in. They are all outstanding leaders for our kids as they begin the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
And as far as the games go, well, they are pretty darn good at that too.
This past basketball season is a prime example. For the first time in my 12 seasons as Sports Editor, we had three different teams win a playoff game in the same year. While that might not seem like that big of a deal compared to some counties, consider how difficult it is just to make it to state, and then consider the type of competition teams from this area face in the opening round every year.
With that in mind, the 2011-12 season was a significant step forward for hoops in Walker County.
I don’t have a vote, but if I did, then LaFayette boys’ coach Tommy Swanson would be my pick for Region 7-AAA Boys’ Coach of the Year. Conventional wisdom is that teams need height in order to be able to win in today’s boys’ game, but Swanson’s Ramblers laughed in the face of that conventional wisdom all year long.
With a roster considered extremely tiny by today’s standards — LaFayette had just one player on its roster listed over six-feet — Swanson took advantage of the Ramblers’ outstanding defensive quickness, superior athleticism, and incredible team chemistry to win 20 games. The Ramblers made the state tournament for the first time in 13 years and earned the program’s first state playoff win since 1982 when they went on the road and knocked off the third-ranked team in Class AAA.
Down in Chickamauga, Ed Clendenen was named the Region 6-A Boys’ Coach of the Year, and with good reason. After a rare losing campaign a year ago (9-17), Clendenen took a team of primarily role players and won 15 of 20 games down the stretch to finish with a 20-win season. The Trojans thumped a Top 10 Mt. Paran team by 19 points on the road, went on to win the subregion title, and took down Commerce in a preliminary playoff game.
With the majority of the team returning next year, and a good group of younger players continuing to come up from the middle school program, it could be the start of a long run of success for Gordon Lee.
And then there is Lester Galyon, this year’s Region 6-A Girls’ Coach of the Year, who has quietly built one of the best and most consistent girls’ programs in the Tri-State area, if not all of Georgia.
Since he took over the Lady Trojans just over a decade ago, Galyon has led the Navy-and-White to numerous region titles, taken them to the state playoff every single season he’s been on the bench, and he continues to replace talent with even more talent to keep the machine running smoothly.
A few years back, I remember wondering what would happen once Kori Penland — arguably the best player to ever come through the girls’ program — graduated. As it turned out, Galyon’s team simply continued to win and win impressively, eventually setting a new school record for victories. And prior to this season, I again wondered how the Lady Trojans would fare after graduating an outstanding senior class that included Holli Brooks, a multiple-time All-State player.
I should have already known the answer. Gordon Lee set yet another school record for wins (26), knocked off a Top 10 team in Darlington for the region title, beat another Top 10 team in Pace Academy in the opening round of the playoffs, and put a huge scare into top-ranked Southwest Atlanta Christian before finally falling in round two.
But those three weren’t the only coaches that did things of note this past season.
Matt Swanson took a woefully-inexperienced LaFayette girls’ team that lost almost all of their starters to graduation and turned in a respectable 8-15 season, despite injuries to several key players, including one of its two seniors who was forced to miss the entire year.
Ridgeland boys’ coach David Stoker had to deal with the graduation of Mason Harris, one of the region’s top players, and the addition of several brand-new players having to learn a brand-new system. Even with that, Panthers finished 13-13, losing nearly a half-dozen games by less than 10 points, and coming up just one win shy of making the state playoffs.
On the girls’ side, it was a tough, tough season for Ridgeland girls’ coach Matt King. Not only did he lose All-State player Rhande Haskett to an ACL injury in the third game of the year, he lost her again after a comeback attempt following Christmas break. There were times when King was forced to play as many as four freshmen on the floor at the same time in their first season in high school varsity basketball.
Yet the team stayed a cohesive unit and continued to fight tooth-and-nail on every possession of every game despite enduring a one-win season. People who only consider numbers when judging a coach’s worth will look at this Lady Panthers’ season and shake their heads. But considering what all they went through, and the effort they continued to give, I have no problem calling it one of King’s best coaching efforts during his current stint at Ridgeland.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the jobs turned in by Daniel Ray and Troy Green at Oakwood Christian High School. Not only were they starting up basketball programs at their school for the first time, they were doing so with the vast majority of their players having never played the game before.
Give Ray a lot of credit for winning just the one game his Lady Eagles won, and give both coaches ton of credit for their effort their teams continued to give despite having the odds stacked against them.
But perhaps the best news for basketball fans in Walker County is that with the exception of the LaFayette boys’ (sorry Coach Swanson), all of the county’s high school teams will bring back the bulk of their teams next year.
And who knows, maybe by the time the 2012-13 playoffs roll around, even more of our basketball teams will be playing even later into February and March.
Scott Herpst is Sports Editor of the Walker County Messenger.