By Rory Sharrock
There a lot of lofty expectations for the girls basketball team at Jonesboro High School.
The No. 6 ranked (Class AAAA) Lady Cardinals feature a veteran roster with playoff-tested seniors and perhaps one of the best backcourt tandems in the Southern Crescent.
This season, the buzz flying around the Bird Cage (Jonesboro gymnasium) is all about advancing to the Final Four and winning a state title. To help them achieve these high aspirations, the school called upon the coaching services of Jimmy Fields to steer the Lady Cardinals' ship to the docks of high school immortality.
Fields was hired during the offseason, replacing former head coach Jamie Horton, who resigned. The Alabama native returns to Clayton County with a decorated trophy shelf and an abundance of championship experience to share with his players for the 2008-09 season.
Everywhere he's stopped throughout his career, Fields has won and left an impressionable mark on the program. Although he was a graduate assistant at the University of Alabama during the late 1990s, his greatest glory took place at Akron High School in Akron, Ala., located just outside Tuscaloosa, where he led the Lady Rams to the state championship in 1999. The following season, he returned to the title game, however Akron finished as the runner-up.
After his tour of duty at Akron, he crossed the state line and moved to Georgia and worked as a boys varsity assistant at Lovejoy High School in 2001. Following a brief stint with the Wildcats, he transferred to Rockdale County High School and led the Lady Bulldogs to the Elite 8 of the state playoffs. Last season, Fields coached in DeKalb County at McNair, where he continued to pour out from his bottomless pit of basketball wisdom with the boys team.
Although Fields has traveled many miles throughout the Atlanta metro area, he feels comfortable in calling Jonesboro High School home and he's excited about working with an experienced group of players who are eager to take their game to the next level.
"I love it and I'm having a ball," said Fields. "I've always been a girls coach and I prefer coaching girls over boys any day. The transition has been smooth and it helps out a lot when you have good group of girls." said Fields.
Despite inheriting a solid core of players, Fields took a job with an unstable county school board that lost its accreditation and witnessed an exodus of student-athletes who transferred to various districts to avoid the chaos. Nevertheless, he knows that despite all of the off-the-court issues, Clayton County and Jonesboro High School is full of talented students who just need the proper guidance to help them reach their potential.
"When I took the job, I knew what was going on here. I took the job because of the type of kids I was going to be working with. It's not as much about basketball, it was about the kids in general. Jonesboro is a good academic school and as long as I've been here, I haven't had any discipline problems. I have good student-athletes and our team grade point average is a 3.5," he said.
Along with improving their basketball skills, Fields has developed strategies to enhance chemistry within the locker room through a variety of team functions, including hosting barbecues for the players and their parents. He's also planning to take the team for a breakfast outing.
While it's still early, it appears that his teachings are starting to pay off for Jonesboro. Through the first three weeks of the season, the Lady Cards are 4-1 and have won three straight, including a 60-52 Region 4-AAAA victory over Dutchtown on Dec. 2 in their opening league game. The team's lone defeat came against Woodward Academy, when they lost 34-31 in the Mt. Zion Thanksgiving Tournament.
"It's going to be tough. We're playing OK, but there's a lot of room for improvement. I told the girls it's a marathon, not a sprint. We want to be at the top in February, but we'll take wins any way we can get them," he said.
However, in addition to wins and losses, the mark of a good coach can be seen in their relationship with students along with a player's development. One of those athletes who has benefited from Fields' expertise is junior forward Jasmine Manning.
Manning has gone from a role player last season, to a starter with significant minutes on the court. Earlier this week versus Dutchtown, Manning dominated the low post, scoring 11 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
"Coach Fields is a lot fun and active. He's helped me with my scoring average and being more active in the offense," said junior forward Jasmine Manning. "He's mostly about defense and that's what we need to work on from last year. The adjustments weren't that hard because we're a fast-paced team. We have a lot of good athletes that know how to run the floor well and that helps a lot."
This overwhelming sense of enthusiasm can be felt throughout each player and it's unleashed upon their opponent when the referee tosses up the ball for the opening tip. However, Jonesboro's passion will briefly be put on hold this week as Friday's home contest against region foe Griffin has been postponed due to the Bears' football playoff game at Tucker.
However, the Lady Cards return to action next week with three games, including at North Clayton, Dec. 9, at Forest Park, Dec. 12 and home versus Alcovy, Dec. 13.