By Brian Paglia
In the fray of Clayton County's school accreditation controversy, Morrow boys basketball coach Jay Livingston wondered who would join the cursory exodus of families leaving and who would remain to help him build the Mustangs back into a state power.
Livingston did his best to stay impartial. He educated his players and their families about what the accreditation loss really meant to their futures. He tried to be practical and poised, a calming presence in a unprecedented maelstrom.
A few players left, but the bulk of the Mustangs returned, convinced by Livingston that this school of tradition was still the best place for them to hit the hard courts, that Morrow's old glory did not have to fade. That core of returning players opens the season next week when Morrow hosts the school's 19th annual Arrowhead Classic Thanksgiving Tournament.
"I'm elated," Livingston said about his returning group. "A lot of our schools lost a lot of great athletes with this thing. Our kids made a commitment, and I made a commitment to them, and our year - what we call it now is the year of the remnant. That's what we're dedicating ourselves to."
Seniors Tony Dukes, Josh Davis and Sean Stringfellow form the core of the Mustangs. They are, as Livingston says, "the heart, mind and soul of the team."
The heart: 6-foot-5, power forward-center Davis, the "kind of kid that you would want to go to war with," Livingston said.
The mind: 6-foot ballhander Dukes, "a consummate analysizer of the game. He thinks the game. He plans way furthur ahead," Livingston said.
The soul: 6-foot guard-swingman Sean Stringfellow, the one that is "the total package of what we are here at Morrow," Livingston said.
They are the ones that toiled through some of Morrow's dimmest seasons. They were freshman during the 2005-06 season that broke the Mustangs' streak of seven straight state playoff appearances. As sophomores, Livingston did not give them as much playing time as he should have, he says now, for a team that went 6-21.
Though as juniors they made marked improvement, going 15-13 and getting to the state playoffs, it was a season that had Livingston up at night thinking about all the time that core spent on the bench. All the time they watched their teammates struggle instead of experienced that struggle on the court.
"In retrospect, you look at it and say, 'Well, we didn't do well. We should've given them more time or experience,'" Livingston said. "Then maybe we wouldn't have had that problem last year. It's those kinds of thoughts that keep you up at three, four, five in the morning."
Dukes, Davis and Stringfellow now bring the expectations of maturity and leadership that come with being seniors and four-year followers of Livingston's full-court pressure philosophy.
Livingston sees that as his team's greatest strength. He has six more seniors that work into the rotation, and he thinks their collective experience can help Morrow recapture its defensive prowess.
"In the last three years we had a group of kids that wanted to be shooters and wanted to be offensive-minded," Livingston said. "They kind of let the defense go to the side. So I think our strength is that we're back to defense, and we still have shooters."
So in the moments when Morrow's full-court press is waning, Livingston now has a group he trusts can overcome its struggles with intelligent decisions, that have the heart, mind and soul to give Morrow its old glory back.