Coaches are always seeking to get more out of their players.
For Johnson High boys basketball coach Jeff Steele, that wasn’t always an easy task in 2014-15. His team went 29-1, including a 27-0 mark entering the Class AAAA playoffs. That included a second straight Lanierland championship and a third straight Region 8-AAAA title.
In fact, an unfortunate break in the GHSA’s bracketing may have been the main culprit in keeping the Knights from reaching the state semifinals or finals. Johnson faced eventual champion Jonesboro in the AAAA quarterfinals, the deepest playoff run in Steele’s 17 seasons as the program’s coach.
But even amid all that success, Steele kept pushing the right buttons with his guys. He said that process meant looking hard for areas to improve and even blowing outsiders’ doubts out of proportion to motivate his players.
While he knew in the summer, and especially in October practices, that his team could be “solid,” Steele said he would never have predicted such a strong finish.
“No coach imagines that,” he said. “It was a little shocking and gratifying at the same time.”
For his efforts, Steele is The Times’ Boys Basketball Coach of the Year, his second straight season earning the award.
While the undefeated regular season was a special accomplishment, the weight of pressure with each additional win was tough on Steele. He said at times he was just ready to complete that run and get back to a 0-0 mark and the postseason.
“It was stressful, but it was also gratifying,” Steele said. “And I learned a lot from what went on this year.”
As the victories piled up, Steele reminded his players of a motivating fact: “You guys created this situation. Now you need to give it respect.”
Steele’s team was built around high-octane scorers Ty Cockfield and Roderick English, but the Knights flourished because of the chemistry between those standouts and the team’s other contributors.
Steele said everyone else “relished” their roles in making the team effective. Point guard Daemonte Nicholson was one of those players, tallying 4.3 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. Forward Andrew Sims averaged 4.7 rebounds.
“We had common goals,” Steele said. “And it was really nice to see the kids be mature enough to understand that.”
Steele appreciated his team’s run, but made sure to point back to the players.
“I give the credit to them,” Steele said. “They did the playing. I just tried to lead them as best I could.”
He regularly referred to his group as “family,” and the results seemed to back up that approach. Johnson was ranked third entering the state playoffs, which Steele said was probably about right.
“I’m pleased with that,” Steele said. “We’re just homegrown boys, and we do it together with hard work and blood and sweat and tears. And it’s gratifying when it’s done the right way.”