By Jeffery Armstrong
North Clayton and Mundy's Mill high schools are miles apart from each other and North Clayton is definitely years older than Mundy's Mill. The one thing they have in common this year is that both the boys and the girls basketball teams have qualified for the state playoffs and will be looking to make some things happen in the post-season.
For North Clayton, both teams are used to making recent trips to the state playoffs. The Eagles boys team has made state for the second straight season while the Lady Eagles have made three consecutive trips to the state playoffs. The school produced the first county state champion in history with the Eagles' win in the 1993 Class AA state championship game.
For Mundy's Mill, a three-year school, this is their teams' first-ever trip to the state playoffs. And now Mundy's Mill's teams will face another school with both teams in state - the Stephenson Jaguars and Lady Jaguars. The Lady Jags are defending Class AAAAA state champions.
The North Clayton Eagles will face Gordon Central at the Dalton Trade Center Saturday at 4 p.m. because Gordon Central's gym is too small for a state playoff game. Eagles head coach Steve Cole said changing the mindset for his players helped ensure his teams would qualify for the state playoffs in his two years at the helm.
"I want the guys to focus on the program and focus on winning off the court as well as on the court. If you take care of the academics and the behavior off the court, winning on the court is easy," Cole said. "We're trying to establish a program here, where winning and making the state playoffs is a given every single year."
Cole said the key for a new school like Mundy's Mill is to use this year to establish a standard for next year's team.
"With them making state for the first time, they have set a legacy at Mundy's Mill," Cole said. "They've gotten better every year and they just have to keep that going."
Eagles players Jamal Bowers, Kiara Weems and Dominique Mitchell said having Cole on board increased their work ethic these last two years. Mitchell, a senior, missed state his first two years on the team and "got serious" as a junior, working harder than ever to be a better basketball player. The sophomore Weems has done the same thing, working on his shooting and lifting weights to be better, especially since several of the team's seniors will be graduating.
"Getting us into the state playoffs will always be one of my goals for this team," Weems said.
Bowers said he's glad to get to state again, but wants to go farther than the team did last year (first-round loss to state finalist Butler). He said Mundy's Mill's players must be prepared to play at a whole different level in state.
"My advice to the guys at Mundy's Mill is to be prepared and go in with their minds straight. They must play defense and not get down if they fall behind or the refs don't give them the calls," said Bowers, a senior. "They've got a tough draw going to Stephenson, but they could start hitting shots they haven't made all year long - anything can happen in the state playoffs."
The North Clayton Lady Eagles are a testament to that. Three years ago, North Clayton made state for the first time since 1996 and had to face defending state champion Glenn Hills in the first round.
The Lady Eagles played very well and had the game tied with seconds to go in regulation. Glenn Hills made a shot to take the lead and North Clayton point guard Ashley Johnson, then a freshman, sank two free throws with one second left send the game to overtime. Glenn Hills put the game away in the extra period, but North Clayton proved that a team making its first state appearance can push a defending champion to the limit.
"Mundy's Mill's girls just need to have great teamwork, play great defense and keep their intensity up throughout the game," Johnson, a senior, said. "I know they'll be nervous, but they've got to stay calm and do what they need to do."
Senior guard Michelle Keith said Mundy's Mill must play smart, doing things necessary to win.
"They must communicate on the floor with each other and they can't give up," Keith said.
Senior guard Aisha Vickers said Mundy's Mill should play through their nervousness once the game gets going and stay close to Stephenson, putting the pressure on the Lady Jaguars to win.
"If they play the game like it's their last, they should be okay," Vickers said. "They've got to stay focused through the game."
Mundy's Mill boys players David Brown, Daniel Brown and Kaymar Williams said they've had two great practices this week and feel they're heading in the right direction.
"I think we got too relaxed during the region tournament and lost some of our hunger we had earlier," said Williams, a senior. "Everybody's more focused now. We're going to head to Stephenson determined to play much better than we have lately."
"If we go there doing what we're supposed to do, we should be fine," said David Brown, a sophomore. "We had injuries to key players in the tournament, but we're a bit better physically now and we're ready to play now."
Brown's twin brother Daniel said their head coach Tu Willingham has focused practice on getting back to the basics.
"We're working on things that got us to 21 wins in the first place," Daniel said.
"If we stay mentally tough, we have a shot against Stephenson."