By Brian Paglia
Every season Jonesboro boys basketball coach Dan Maehlman encounters the same challenge. Freshman enter the Cardinals program coming from different middle schools with varying degrees of basketball knowledge.
To Maehlman, they are a clean slate. One freshman surprised Maehlman this season when he asked the Jonesboro coach, "What's a charge?"
After graduating four-fifths of Jonesboro's starting lineup, Maehlman expected to lean heavily upon a group of freshmen and transfers, which meant teaching would be paramount. How quickly the Cardinals learned Maehlman's system and developed a team chemistry would determine Jonesboro's season.
After a victory over Stockbridge on Tuesday, the Cardinals (14-9, 10-4 Region 4-AAAA) have won six in a row going into Friday night's contest against Ola (9-12, 6-8).
"Our kids are starting to like each other, trust each other, play together on the floor," Maehlman said. "I think that's why we've reeled off a couple of wins."
Freshmen like Cameron Sutton and Patrick Petty have contributed significant minutes and embraced their roles as lock-down defenders. That was evident when the two held reigning Henry County player of the year Chris Davis of Stockbridge to just seven points in a 57-42 victory Jan. 5.
Junior transfers Rasham Suarez and Myron Sallie have stepped into the starting lineup and provided consistent scoring. Suarez, a native of Puerto Rico by way of Las Vegas, scored 21 against Stockbridge on Tuesday. Rollie added 13.
Jonesboro's second-half surge has it in second place behind North Clayton in the region and having fun.
"It's been fun since the beginning," Suarez said. "We started struggling in the beginning, but now we're playing together as a team. We're having fun out there. I'm having fun out there. That's what matters."
"The last nine games have been very fun to play with the news kids on the team," said Jonesboro senior Jesse Gardner, the only returning starter from last season's region champion team. "I enjoy playing with them."
Maehlman said the Cardinals have begun to succeed because players are understanding and fulfilling their roles.
"I've got seven, eight or nine guys that really understand their role," Maehlman said, "and that's what it's all about. They go out and do whatever it is, whether defend, rebound, take charges, make the extra pass and that's what we're starting to do.
"At the beginning of the year we didn't do that. That's why we'd win one game and lose one, win two and then lose one. But we're starting to get to that point."
Ola provides another barometer for Jonesboro despite the Mustangs' record. The Mustangs continued their strong play against Jonesboro, earning a 57-49 win Jan. 13. The teams split last season. Both games were decided by less than four points.
But Jonesboro has become a different team since that Ola loss. Its won eight of nine. Its only blemish was an overtime loss to region leader North Clayton.
And the Cardinals are having fun again.
"I think we've got some good chemistry coming," Gardner said. "I'm glad it finally came, because it'll carry us into the region tournament."