There was plenty of uncertainty for the Clarke Central boys when the season began. Stefan Smith got the job as head coach in the spring, but COVID had cancelled all activities. Smith didn’t have time to implement his system or get to know the players – and vice-versa.
It took a while for the players to completely accept the new staff. But once they did, the team has been almost unstoppable. The No. 10-ranked Gladiators are 13-6, have won 10 in a row and have nailed down the Region 8 championship. It is the first region title for Clarke Central since 2014.
“We’ve come together,” said Smith, who graduated from Clarke Central in 1991 and returned at the encouragement of head football coach David Perno. Smith is the head junior varsity football coach, as well as the head varsity boys basketball coach. “I got the job in May and we didn’t have any summer workouts and nine of our players are football players. We were learning my system on the fly.”
The Gladiators got off to a 3-6 start before Smith can pinpoint the moment things changed. That occurred after a road loss to Greenbrier – their only region loss – when they beat a good Eastside team by 17 points.
“I think that’s when they realized they could be a good basketball team,” Smith said. “After that Eastside game they looked at each other – and looked at (the coaches) – a little differently.”
Smith had been telling his guys to trust the process. He used the phrase often and emphasized the slogan, “Together everyone achieves more. It’s all about the team.”
The Gladiators haven’t lost since then. The winning streak includes two impressive non-region wins against crosstown rival Cedar Shoals – such a sweep had not happened since 2014 – that seemed to open a lot of eyes. “That’s big in this city,” Smith said. “That game determines when you’ve got a good team for a lot of people.”
The winning streak also includes two victories against Loganville, the preseason favorite. Clarke beat the Red Devils by a point on Monday. Their Tuesday game against Eastside was cancelled because of COVID, leaving the Gladiators to finish the season on Friday against Walnut Grove.
Clarke Central has a deep roster; Smith often uses 10 players, depending on the circumstances and what the opposition tries to throw at it.
The top player is Rio Foster, who is one of the team’s many multi-sport athletes. Foster a sturdily built senior (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) averages a double-double for the Gladiators. He’s the tight end on the football team and an outstanding baseball player.
Nono Mack may be the team’s most versatile player. The senior isn’t big (5-11), but he is accomplished enough to play any position – even center if needed. “We played Winder-Barrow and they had a 6-8 guy and I told Nono, ‘You got him.’” Smith said. “You can put him in any situation.”
Other key players on the team include Khyle Cowan, Antonio Jewell, Kahari Dean, Jaavan Mack, Alex Smith and Justin Hodges.
The Gladiators will start competition in the Region 8 tournament next week. They will open with a home game against the No. 8 seed, most likely Johnson or Apalachee.
The playoff perspective
Less than two weeks remain in the regular season. The regions who have elected to have region tournaments will conduct those the week of Feb. 15-21. The first round of the state tournament is scheduled to start Feb. 23.
Here are the teams that hold the top four positions in each region. (Information through Feb. 1 from Georgia High School Association).
Region 1: Boys – Veterans, Coffee, Warner Robins, Ware County. Girls – Warner Robins, Coffee, Veterans, Wayne County.
Region 2: Boys – Harris County, Griffin, McIntosh, Starr’s Mill. Girls – Griffin, Harris County, McIntosh, Whitewater.
Region 3: Boys – Tri-Cities, Woodward Academy, Jonesboro, Forest Park. Girls – Woodward Academy, Forest Park, Jonesboro, Mundy’s Mill.
Region 4: Boys – Eagle’s Landing, Dutchtown, Jones County, Woodland. Girls – Dutchtown, Union Grove, Jones County, Eagle’s Landing.
Region 5: Boys – St. Pius, Lithonia, King, SW DeKalb. Girls – SW DeKalb, St. Pius, King, Decatur.
Region 6: Boys – New Manchester, Chapel Hill, Villa Rica, Lithia Springs. Girls – Maynard Jackson, New Manchester, Grady, Lithia Springs.
Region 7: Boys – Hiram, Cass, Blessed Trinity, Calhoun. Girls – Cass, Hiram, Calhoun, Blessed Trinity.
Region 8: Boys – Clarke Central, Eastside, Walnut Grove, Loganville. Girls – Greenbrier, Loganville, Walnut Grove, Jackson County.