Avery Wood placed an unusual item at the top of her most recent Christmas list.
While the average 11-year-old might ask for the newest cell phone or tablet, what she wanted most was something that couldn’t be bought or made. Avery, who will attend new Hall County school Cherokee Bluff Middle when it opens this fall, hoped her father Benjie could join her on campus there.
“My wife told her to make out a Christmas list,” said Benjie Wood, who at that point was the boys basketball coach at Gainesville High, “and the first thing on her list is for her daddy to get a job at the new school.”
Little did she know, her father was already working on making her — and the Cherokee Bluff High administration’s — wish a reality.
Benjie Wood will be Cherokee Bluff’s first boys basketball coach when the school opens its doors for the 2018-19 academic year. Though he reached the Class 6A state championship game with Gainesville this season, the move to South Hall’s new school was obvious for him.
“It was a family move. I live (in Flowery Branch),” Wood said. “My daughter and my son go to Chestnut Mountain Elementary. My family is down here, so when I got that call, we just started talking about things, and one thing led to another.
“I love basketball, I love coaching, but I’m a dad first.”
Wood’s wife Nicole also took a job at Cherokee Bluff Middle, where the couple’s daughter will soon attend classes. The new middle and high school will both be located where Flowery Branch High now sits, giving the family members a chance to be closer to each other as well as their home.
In Wood, who’s also father to 6-year-old Cooper, the Bears gained a proven coach who could help them compete right away in the rugged Class 7-3A.
“I think one of the things that’s extremely important is that you want somebody that is passionate and knowledgeable about their sport, but they have to have the ability to connect with kids,” said Cherokee Bluff athletic director Kenny Hill, who’s currently assistant principal at Flowery Branch.
“I think you can know all the X’s and O’s there are to know, but if you can’t connect with the kids, it’s not going to work. That’s a really strong piece with coach Wood — his ability to connect, to have a plan.”
His record reflects that.
Wood has racked up five state semifinal appearances between his last three stops, going twice with both the North Hall boys and Johnson girls before this year’s run with the Red Elephants.
The 20-year coach, who got his start at Madison County, has amassed a 394-155 career record, good for a 71.8 winning percentage.
It takes good players to win, Wood acknowledged, but he said getting the best out of them requires meaningful connections.
“First and foremost, it’s always about relationships,” Wood said. “The bottom line is we want to develop relationships. We want to get in here, know the kids and develop good relationships with them.”
The Buford High graduate has accomplished that everywhere he has been. Wood said former players from Johnson, North Hall and Madison County were all present to support him at Gainesville’s state championship loss March 9 in Atlanta, and in the past year alone he has attended four weddings for players he coached.
Wood’s first order of business in building the Bears program is creating such strong bonds with his new players. He said he has already met a few of them, and he’s working with his assistants to arrange a formal team meeting.
Hill, who coached and taught with Wood at Johnson, said his basketball coach is just the right person to develop the program from the ground up through youth teams in the community.
It’s a process Wood is anxious to begin.
“You get to mold it however you want to mold it,” he said. “Like all first-year schools, we’ll have our challenges. It’s going to be a wild ride, but it’ll be a fun ride.”
Wood expressed his thanks for the Red Elephants administration, which saw him lead the team to a 114-33 record over the last five seasons. Gainesville’s new coach, who has yet to be named, will take over a team set to graduate a talented class of seven seniors this year.
For all the success he had and memories he made with the Red Elephants, the top priority in Wood’s life has led him to something new.
“I love the kids I’ve coached, but I get to be a dad just one time,” Wood said. “I have to make sure I do right by my kids, who are the basis behind the move.
“It’s going to be a great situation. I think Cherokee Bluff will be a great community to raise families in, and I’m super excited about my family being there with me.”