Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald newspapers.
JONESBORO — Close isn’t good enough, not when you’re trying to build a program.
Not when you’re striving to become great.
Not when you’re trying to get back to a place that you once were. Familiar comfort zones render any other feeling incomplete.
When you’ve not only tasted success, but regularly dined at the table, it’s kind of tough to go without. It’s like being raised on a steady diet of steak and shrimp, and then being suddenly shifted to bologna sandwiches and fish sticks.
Talk to Mount Zion basketball coach Maurice Triche about how he feels about bologna.
“That’s where we’re trying to get back to,” said Triche, as he pointed to two state basketball tournament banners that commemorate the Bulldogs’ last trip to high school’s big dance.
One said 1999 and the other said 2000.
In other words, ‘pass me the steak.’
His gaze lingered on the black felt banners trimmed with Bulldog red and white.
“So that’s been 12 years, right?” The question was rhetorical. He could do the math. But here is another number for you: 11. That’s Mount Zion’s total wins this season. Even after the 44-39 loss to the Cardinals.
Last season, Mount Zion’s not-so-magic number was four. That is four wins in 26 games. It took them until Jan. 13, 2012 to get there. They subsequently lost 10 straight.
But Saturday night against the Cardinals, this Mount Zion team looked different than last year’s. Not so much in who the Bulldogs had on the court, but more in how they played.
Jonesboro slowed the game down. Made it look ugly. You could tell Mount Zion wanted to get out and run with it. Get its talented swingman and Jacksonville University signee J.R. Holder out into the open court. But thanks to the Cardinals’ physicality, it didn’t happen.
But it didn’t stop Mount Zion from battling. They looked like they belonged with a team that took No. 3 Eagle’s Landing to the wire and beyond. Holder was primarily held in check. But other contributors like Carnilious Simmons Surmon Neal showed heart in how they helped pick up some of the scoring slack.
Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman was impressed.
“That’s probably the biggest team I’ve seen here at Mount Zion since I’ve been in Clayton County,” Maehlman said. “They’re huge. Coach Triche definitely has them going in the right direction.”
If you watched, them play, that fact was clear. Mount Zion boasts five players who are 6-feet-5 inches or taller, and only two of them — Holder and Simmons — are seniors.
So don’t be surprised when you hear Triche share his excitement about Mount Zion’s future, even in the midst of a very successful present.
“I’m really looking for next year to be the breakout year for us,” Triche said. “This is still a process. These guys have never been this position before. They are still learning how to win.”
They almost passed the test Saturday. In a game where Mount Zion never led, but also never trailed by more than six points, Jonesboro showed why it was the more experienced team — the back-to-back semifinalists.
They played the tense moments like grizzled veterans. Meanwhile, Mount Zion’s missed free throws and two costly turnovers with less than a minute in the game doomed their chances at pulling off a program defining win.
But it won’t be the Bulldogs’ last shot. Look for them to rebound nicely over the next seven days with games against struggling Ola and Forest Park, rebuilding Drew and Mundy’s Mill left on the schedule, I look for Mount Zion to more than solidify its place in the state playoffs.
Back-to-back tussles with Union Grove on Saturday and Tuesday look to be the Bulldogs’ toughest remaining challenge.
Oh yeah, and that rematch with the school around the corner on February 2.
Region champions? Deep run into state? Only time will tell.
But one thing’s for sure. Mount Zion is definitely inching its way back to feast at the table of basketball success.
Gabriel Stovall is a sports writer with the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter? Follow him @gabrielstovall1.