Jonesboro freshman James Walker has averaged 19 points during the Cardinals first three tournament wins. (Staff Photo: Derrick Mahone)
JONESBORO — Reaching the Class AAAA semifinals is special, but for this season’s version of the Jonesboro Cardinals, it has some extra meaning.
After graduating nine seniors that helped the team reach the second round of the playoffs last season, many would have thought the Cardinals would be in a rebuilding mode with only one player back with significant playing experience.
But that hasn’t been the case for the Cardinals, who will be making their third final four appearance in the last four seasons.
Despite having to replace its entire starting lineup and the majority of the team’s role players, Jonesboro clinched the Region 4-AAAA championship. After winning three playoff games, the Cardinals will take on top-ranked Alexander today in an 8:15 p.m. contest at West Georgia.
“I’m proud as a coach can be of his team right now,” Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman said. “This is pretty amazing to see what these guys were able to accomplish despite their lack of experience. It has been fun to watch them grow and mature through the season.”
Junior DeAntre Mack is the only returning player with any significant playing experience from last season. The team’s scoring leader — James “MJ” Walker — was on the eighth-grade team last season at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy a year ago.
Its leading rebounder — Tracy Hector — played half the season last year at North Clayton before sustaining a season-ending wrist injury.
“Coaches always talk about jelling and peaking at the end of the season,” Maehlman said. “This team has done exactly that in the last few games. I’m happy with the progress they have made as a team. They are playing and encouraging each other.”
Last season, Alexander reached the quarterfinals of the playoffs. This is the farthest that an Alexander boys team has gone in the playoffs three other appearances.
This will be the Region 5-AAAA champion Cougars’ first playoff game away from home. Because it was a region champion, the team played its previous three games at home.
However, this will make the second straight game that Jonesboro will have to travel. On Thursday, the Cardinals defeated Rutland 84-81 in Macon to clinch a spot in the semifinals.
Maehlman said that shouldn’t be a factor when they take on Alexander.
“When you get to the state playoffs, every team is good,” he said. “Good teams learn to win on the road in the playoffs in a hostile environment.”
And Jonesboro did exactly that at Rutland. Before a packed gymnasium, the Cardinals lead the majority of the game, and held on at the end to stop a late rally by the home team.
“The biggest thing is this team is playing with a lot of composure,” Maehlman said. “They are playing with a lot poise and playing within themselves.”