By Brian Paglia
At one end of the court, the junior guard who had never breathed a minute of varsity basketball before this season was trapped by two Forest Park defenders. At the other end, the senior guard who spent last season idle on the bench, usually a spectator just like those in the stands, raced toward the basket with his hand flailing to be noticed.
When Mario Cummings saw Jesse Gardner running undefended toward Jonesboro's basket, he followed the protocol that coach Dan Maehlman spent practice after practice preaching to his players.
"Everyday coach tells us always to look up," Cummings said. "At that moment, I saw my teammate running down, and I just threw him the ball."
Cummings connected with Gardner on a perfect pass over Forest Park's stingy full-court press, and Gardner's fluid layup with 8 seconds left gave Jonesboro a 50-48 victory over Forest Park in the Region 4-AAAA tournament championship game Saturday at Stockbridge. Jonesboro's win, hours after the Lady Cardinals' defeated Dutchtown in the girls region championship game, gave the school, and Clayton County, a sweep on the region's grandest stage.
And for both Maehlman and girls coach Jimmy Fields, the feat of two Clayton County schools sweeping the region titles brought special significance.
"I'm just proud that with all the stuff that we had in Clayton County going on," Fields said, "and all the negative stuff, that we could bring something positive to the county, and to the school in particular."
"It's a positive thing that I think should by on CNN and all over the news," Maehlman added, "that despite all that we're going through in Clayton County, these coaches haven't given up, these kids haven't given up, parents haven't given up and it's awesome."
Jonesboro's boys and girls teams began this season with wildly different expectations.
Though Fields began his first season with the Lady Cardinals, he inherited a team that won 21 games and returned four starters, including eventual region player of the year Drameka Griggs. One championship (perhaps another in a few weeks) was the goal even as Fields was just introducing himself to players at a barbeque at his home before the season.
"I owe it to the players and the assistant coaches," Fields said. "That's what they worked for, and that was one of their goals was a region championship trophy."
That goal picked up steam while the Lady Cardinals (27-1) proceeded to win 26 games in a row - and counting - climbing to No. 3 in the state rankings and defeating opponents with impressive thoroughness.
"It's one championship down, one to go," Griggs said after the game.
Then consider the boys, a team that entered the season shrouded in uncertainty, with its only identity wrapped up in a decade of success during Maehlman's 10 years as head coach. They had lost scoring, experience and legitimacy. Coaches picked them to finish at the bottom of the region standings, all under the belief that this would be a rebuilding year.
So they played fearless, undaunted by their county's tarnished reputation from a sheriff's escapades; a police officer's Bigfoot hoax; a controversial half-time routine by Jonesboro's own dance team; and the loss of accreditation. They were undaunted by pressure, playing in 19 games decided by 10 points or less and winning 12. They hit last second free throws and buzzer-beating shots.
They were not the best team Maehlman has ever had. He has had others, he said, that met the expectations of their talent by reaching Elite 8's and Finals Fours and even a state championship game. But none had given him a region championship before.
"From the beginning of this year, they picked us to finish at the bottom," Maehlman said. "Everybody said we'd be at the bottom of the region. Everybody said it'd be a rebuilding year for us. So that's why it means a lot to me, because these kids worked through, even though we've been in tight games, they've worked their tails off, never given up and they're sitting here with a region championship. And that to me defines why you do stuff like this.
"When you see kids that people around them, other people in the state and in the basketball community are saying, 'Well, you can't do this. They're not good.
They're rebuilding,' and yet they just come together as a team. It took us awhile, but I think we have, and I don't think we could've won a region championship if it wasn't for coming together."