Class 5A blog: State playoffs begin ... Clarke coach endures pain to win region title

It has been an emotional roller coaster for Clarke Central basketball coach Stefan Smith over the last six weeks.

Smith’s mother died unexpectedly in February, leaving him emotionally wounded and distracted. But his assistant coaches stepped in and his team rallied on his behalf to win the Region 8 tournament and become the school’s first boys basketball team to win back-to-back championships.

Clarke’s run to the region championship was remarkable. The Gladiators became the only fifth-seeded team this season to win a region title. They won four games over six days, beating Johnson, fourth-seeded Eastside, top-seeded Walnut Grove and third-seeded Loganville 46-45 in the title game.

“I had a talk with them, and I think they kind of got inspired by my situation,” Smith said. “I think everybody just fought a little harder.”

Clarke Central (14-14) will host New Manchester (15-8) on Wednesday in the first round of the state playoffs.

Smith decided to take a lesser role and rely on his staff for a few games after the Gladiators were beaten on a long pass by Eastside at the end of the game.

“I don’t let those kind of things happen,” Smith said. “So I had to step aside and let my assistants (Terrell Jackson, Damien Gary and Deirdre Frasier) take over, and they’ve been real strong. … They stepped up and made it happen. I think the players wanted to make history a little bit.”

Smith was at the Region 8 tournament games; he said those two hours helped get his mind off the situation and acted like therapy. And winning never hurts.

The Gladiators have had their share of injuries this season, the most significant being a knee injury to 6-foot-8 Tyson Jones. There’s a slight chance Jones could return if Clarke makes a run in the playoffs. The Glads returned all-region wing Khyle Cowan, A.J. Jewell and Kahari Dean, who were starters last year.

First-round games

Girls schedule

Wayne County at Forest Park, Blessed Trinity at SW DeKalb, Villa Rica at Loganville, Jones County at Griffin, Jonesboro at Ware County, Stone Mountain at Hiram, Walnut Grove at New Manchester, Northside-Columbus at Union Grove, Harris County at Eagle’s Landing, Maynard Jackson at Jackson County, Calhoun at Decatur, Coffee at Woodward Academy, Stockbridge at McIntosh, Lithia Springs at Greenbrier, St. Pius at Cass, Tri-Cities at Warner Robins.

Best first-round girls game

Northside-Columbus at Union Grove – Northside (20-7) was ranked much of the season and entered the Region 2 tournament as the second seed, only to drop two games and fall to fourth place. The Patriots are led by juniors Ayonna Durand and Mya Giles, who each average 12 points. Union Grove (21-4) is the Region 4 champion and has won five straight under co-coach of the year Dock Gammage. The Wolverines are led by first-team all-region picks Ananda Mayhew and Jordan Brooks and honorable mention selections Nadea Smith, Julia Baker and Autumn Bowman.

Most surprising girls team: Decatur – The Bulldogs (14-9) knocked off second-seeded St. Pius to reach the Region 5 final, where they lost 39-35 to mighty Southwest DeKalb. Freshman Cornelia Ellington (17 points, 3.5 steals) was a first-team all-region selection, and Morgan Miles (11.6 points, 9.2 rebounds) and Marlo Simms (8.6 points, 8.8 rebounds) were second-team choices. Decatur hosts Calhoun in the first round.

Boys schedule

Wayne County at Jonesboro, Blessed Trinity at St. Pius, Maynard Jackson at Loganville, Dutchtown at Northside-Columbus, Woodward Academy at Warner Robins, SW DeKalb at Hiram, Walnut Grove at Midtown, McIntosh at Eagle’s Landing, Griffin at Union Grove, Greenbrier at Chapel Hill, Cartersville at Lithonia, Coffee at Tri-Cities, Woodland at Harris County, New Manchester at Clarke Central, Decatur at Calhoun, Mundy’s Mill at Veterans.

Best first-round boys game: Blessed Trinity at St. Pius – These two schools enjoy a heated rivalry, so the opening round of the tournament is an apt place for it to play out. St. Pius won the regular-season meeting 51-41 on Dec. 10. Blessed Trinity (14-14) is led by all-region selections Brigham Rogers and Ty Harpring. St. Pius (25-3) is led by veteran Eamonn Kenah, a first-team all-region choice and probable all-state player, and Spencer Elliott.

Most surprising boys team: Union Grove – The No. 6 seeded Wolverines (12-14) knocked out third-seeded Jones County and second-seeded Woodland to reach the region final, where they were beaten by defending state champion and No. 1-ranked Eagle’s Landing. The balanced team is led by juniors Chance Whitfield and Caleb Johnson. Union Grove opens the tournament at home on Wednesday against Griffin (12-12).

A special thanks to the coaches and administrators who took the time to report scores from their region tournaments. Your efforts are appreciated.