Photo by Heather Middleton
By Derrick Mahone
Busy preparing his team for today's Class AAAA quarterfinals game against Hardaway, Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman has had little time to think about the future of his basketball program.
With his Region 4-AAAA championship team 32 minutes away from reaching the Final Four, who could blame Maehlman for just living in the moment. But when he has time to peek into the future of the basketball program, Maehlman will see a bright future.
Although the fifth-ranked Cardinals have a veteran presence this season, starting three seniors, including Div. I players James White (Arkansas-Little Rock) and region player of the year Rasham Suarez (Georgia Southern), they have a talented group of eight sophomores.
"That whole group of sophomores is very athletic," Maehlman said. "Not only are they good athletes, they are good kids and good students. They are real easy to coach. I really don't look ahead, because I'm so focused on this year. When it comes around to the summer and we are looking to build, I will start to take a bigger look."
What he will see is a group that has logged a lot of minutes in helping the Cardinals compile a 27-3 record. The junior-varsity squad went 14-4 with an entire team of sophomores.
"I think we got a lot of talent in this class," said sophomore Alejandro Bennifield, who was also the starting quarterback on the he football team. "Once we get a little stronger, and get some experience, we should be able to dominate."
And the coach has full confidence in the youngsters.
During the course of a game, Maehlman has no problem inserting one of this talented underclassmen. With the emergence of his sophomore, the coach has moved two-time region player of the year Suarez to the shooting guard position as Sutton and Peace has emerged at the point.
Peace spent much of the season as the second or third player off the bench, but when Sutton went down with a sprained knee in the quarterfinals of the region tournament, Peace was inserted in the lineup.
He had an immediate impact during a crucial time in the season by averaging nine points and five assists. In two starts, Peace only has one turnover while smoothly directing a Cardinals' team that has two first round playoff blowouts.
"I had to make up for when Cameron wasn't in the game," Peace said. "We might have been in trouble when Cam went down, but everybody stepped up."
In fact, the entire sophomore class has stepped up in the state playoffs. They have 49 percent (79 of the 161 points) of the teams points in the last two games.
"Our practices are real competitive," Maehlman said.
As competitive as the sophomores are on the court, they describe themselves as a close-knit off it.
They grew up together. Patrick Petty, John Walker, Casey Wells and Brandon Black all attended Roberts Middle School. Sutton went to Roberts before finishing up at Rex Mill while Bennefield attended Kendrick. Peace moved to the county last year after attending middle school in Hapeville.
"We talk about a rivalries in middle school," said Sutton, who starts in football, baseball and basketball at Jonesboro. "We joke around a lot about that. It is rarely that you don't see three or four of us together. We get alone real well."
Maehlman has been at Jonesboro for 12 years, and says this group of sophomores reminds him of the 2003 class, which featured current Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Harry Douglass. In 2003, the Cardinals lost to Wheeler in the Class AAAAA championship, but 10 of those players received either a basketball or football scholarship.
"This class is very compatible to that them," Maehlman said. "We had some good athletes in that class, and these have a lot of potential."
THE CLASS OF 2013
Talented sophomore class gives Jonesboro hope for bright future
Patrick Petty A starter that plays solid defense
Daniel Peace Has elevated his game in playoffs
John Walker Can give valuable minutes off bench
Casey Wells Has played some off the bench
Alejandro Bennifield Lefty gives team perimeter scoring
Chukedubem Okeke Developing big man, crowd favorite
Cameron Sutton Perhaps best athlete on the team
Brandon Black Has played sparingly during season