When Greg Brown accepted the Jefferson girls basketball coaching job, he knew the struggle he might face. His new team was going to be young. But he was aware of the tradition before applying for the position, then leaving Northwest Whitfield in Dalton.
He knew his team had potential, at the first glance, like any quality coach would. But he also knew his team would lack crucial experience, with only one senior and three juniors on the roster. The key was to get the team to buy into his system. And now, 21 games later, Jefferson has lost only two games and sits at the top of the Class AAA girls rankings.
“I’d be lying if I told you I thought we’d be where we are now,” Brown said. “I knew how young we were. I thought we had a lot of potential, but I don’t know that I thought we would be where we are at this quick. But the kids have bought in to our system and how we want to do things, and they are just competing and playing really hard. That makes up for youthful mistakes, as I like to say. They have a lot of confidence in what we are trying to do and how we want to do things. They make my job a whole lot of fun.”
Jefferson opened its season with eight victories before losing 60-52 to Morgan County on the road. Its other loss came on Dec. 29 to Boyd County of Kentucky in the Pensacola Christmas Tournament. Since then the Dragons have been flawless, including a 68-55 victory against Morgan County on Tuesday.
“It’s really odd,” said Brown. “It’s young kids. Like our point guard, Livi Blackstock; the ball is in her hands a lot. She doesn’t come out of the game a whole lot. She has just done a really good job leading by example and vocally on the floor and in practice.”
Blackstock is Jefferson’s leading scorer with 15 points per game. The 5-foot-7 sophomore scored 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting from the field and 2-of-5 shooting from behind the arc against Morgan County.
“Two of our freshmen are the other top scorers, Deshona Gaither and Natalia Bolden,” Brown said. “Both kids have just kind of grown up as the year has gone on. They’ve done a really good job for us. Gaither is one of the best players I’ve ever coached in terms of explosiveness. She just makes it happen. This group is different. We have kind have been led by underclassmen, and everyone has kind of followed suit. I would say those three have done a really good job about leading, not only by example, but how they carry themselves on and off the floor.”
Bolden led Jefferson with 18 points against Morgan County on 7-of-18 shooting from the field and 1-of-3 from 3-point range. Gaither scored 16 points on 7-for-18 shooting from the floor and 2-for-4 shooting from behind the arc.
Jefferson’s region -- the stacked Region 8 with No. 2 Morgan County and No. 5 Hart County -- provides the experience that the young players will need at tournament time.
“I think the big thing for us is that our region is very good,” said Brown. “Especially the top half. You look around and you have Morgan County, who we beat on Tuesday. Morgan was one of our two losses this year. And then there’s Hart County, who beat Morgan County last week. I just think we are going to be very battle-tested when the state tournament gets here, just within our own region. I think we have three or four teams that will do very, very well in the state tournament. I think we are one of the richest regions in the state.”
Brown discussed his program Wednesday during a telephone conversation:
Q. What’s it like to be forced to lean on the younger players like you’ve had to?
A. We are starting two freshman, two sophomores and a junior. It’s by far the youngest team I’ve ever put on the floor at one time. It’s a lot of fun. The kids have really grown up as we have gotten further into the season. We just really don’t even talk about their age anymore, to be honest. We just have expectations, and they are trying to play to the standard that they want to play within our program. It has been different. Just to see their growth and maturity from Game 1 through 21 games has been fun to see and a lot of fun to coach.
Q. How experienced is this team? The youth you possess plays big. How will that factor?
A. The big thing for us is that we have seen a little bit of everything. We’ve seen teams bigger than us, smaller than us, more athletic than us. I feel like we just have a really good mix of athleticism, size and smarts. We have a good balance of kids who just like playing together. We don’t deal with a whole lot of drama here. The kids really get along with each other, and that makes my job as a coach a whole lot easier. When they like each other and play hard for each other, that’s the big thing I see with this group.
Q. Your final stretch toward the region tournament, what’s the plan?
A. We just really take it one game at a time with this group this year. We have been trying to just control what we can control. We have East Jackson next, and they put a scare on Hart County last night, almost upset them. So we know we are going to have to be ready to play. And like was mentioned, the bullseye is kind of on our back being No. 1. We know we aren’t going to sneak up on anyone at this point. Everybody kind of understands where we are. We will just take it as it comes. Next Tuesday we will go to Hart and play them for the third time this year. So it’s going to be tough to beat them. It’s hard to beat anybody three times in a season.
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