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Boys Basketball Coach of the Year: Johnson's Jeff Steele

Knights head coach built one of state's most dominant offenses

POSTED: March 29, 2014 10:46 p.m.

Jeff Steele never intended to have one of the deadliest offenses in Georgia.

The Johnson boys basketball coach has prided himself on strong defensive play for his entire 15-year career with the Knights. But he also knew a team capable of dazzling the scoreboard when he saw it.

So when Johnson transformed into a group of players that thrived off a lightning-fast pace and had a knack for finding the basket, Steele embraced the new philosophy.

“We wanted to run, and when we could run we could score points in bunches,” Steele said. “It kind of snowballed from our style of play.”

At season’s end, the Knights finished 24-6, won the Region 8-AAAA title for the second straight year and averaged 80 points per game, becoming one of the state’s highest-scoring teams.

For his efforts, Steele is The Times’ Boys Basketball Coach of the Year.

Under Steele’s leadership, Johnson reached the 100-point mark four times, 90 points once and 80 points 11 times. Most nights, opposing defenses had no choice but to focus entirely on slowing down the Knights’ torrid offense. And most nights, that didn’t help.

“We always wanted to get out and run because we had quickness, speed and people that could shoot,” said Steele, who has won 89 games over the past five seasons. “We tried to get out in transition as much as we could, and that led to us scoring a lot of points.”

As the shots fell, the banners in the Johnson High gym were raised. The Knights brought home their first Lanierland Tournament title in 25 years in December, then secured back-to-back region championship seasons for the first time in team history with a 21-point shellacking of Eastside in the Region 8-AAAA championship.

Along the way, Johnson’s players were defined by their consistent roles on the court. Night in and night out, Drew Dunham was the go-to point guard. Ty Cockfield was the emotional leader and aggressor in the backcourt. James Hodges and Rod English served as bruisers in the paint. Carter Cagle was the 3-point specialist. Justin Jones was the athletic sixth man.

Even though Steele didn’t expect to average 80 points per game, he set the groundwork for those roles from the very beginning.

“When you define roles, they usually stay in those parameters,” Steele said. “That pretty much allows those kids to showcase those skills. I’ve always been that way, I’ve just never had this many weapons in the past.”

Johnson went through an impressive run during the first half of the season. After starting the year 0-2, the Knights won 14 of their next 15 games. They averaged just over 80 points per game during the span.

The hot streak included a 76-71 win over East Hall in the Lanierland championship game, with Cockfield earning tournament MVP honors afterward for his 26-point outing.

Johnson took its worst loss of the season on the chin six days later, an 81-57 shortcoming against Grayson, then simply went back to winning with another seven-game streak.

“There were definitely some hangover effects from (Lanierland),” Steele said. “I think in the long run it did help us, though.”

The Knights battled toe-to-toe with eventual Class AAA runner-up Buford before falling 71-68 to the Wolves. Their only region loss of the season, a 62-57 decision against Eastside, came four nights later.

Then Johnson quickly returned to winning ways with a nine-game streak that extended throughout the region tournament and into the state playoffs. The Knights avoided another first-round flop with an 83-71 win over Stone Mountain, finally making their opening-round upset against Shaw in 2013 an afterthought.

The following week, Johnson’s season came to an end with an 83-80 overtime loss to Sandy Creek in the second round. It marked the Knights’ first appearance in the second round since 2010.

“They were a close-knit group,” Steele said. “All of the things you want out of your team as a coach is what this team was, as far as I’m concerned.”

Steele will have two returning starters — English and Cockfield — to work with next season. He anticipates junior Daemonte Nicholson to join the starting five at point guard, and 6-foot-4 junior Laderius Odem will likely handle post duties.

It may not be quite the same intense, high-scoring team the Johnson community has come to admire over the past two years. The Knights will have a new cast of region opponents to defeat for another region title bid, including fellow 2014 playoff teams Buford and White County.

But if Steele has anything to say about it, his team will keep on winning.

“What I’ve been telling my guys so far is that teams may try to junk it up against us next year — maybe double-team Ty and Rod,” Steele said. “We’re going to have to develop trust in the other guys that are out there with them. And they are capable.”


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