Ty Cockfield had a penchant for making things look easy during his senior year for Johnson High’s boys basketball team. Looks can be deceiving.
The points, the dunks and particularly his 3-pointers were a product of his tireless work in the Frank J. Knight gymnasium on the school’s campus. Coach Jeff Steele can attest. His senior standout was constantly bugging Steele about getting in the gym to put up shots.
All those extra shots paid off as Cockfield led the Knights to an undefeated regular season, Lanierland and Region 8-AAAA titles and a Class AAAA quarterfinals berth. He finished the season a much-improved 62 for 158 (39.2 percent) from behind the 3-point line.
“I took my game to another level with my shooting,” Cockfield said.
Cockfield averaged 28 points, 4.4 assists, four rebounds and 1.7 steals in setting the tone for 29-1 Johnson, which fell to eventual state champion Jonesboro in the quarterfinals.
For his efforts, Cockfield is The Times’ Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
‘You’re going to be great one day’
Cockfield can still clearly remember how he got started playing basketball. He was 4 years old, and his uncle Bradley Mize handed him a ball.
Mize was also one of Cockfield’s first coaches. Cockfield can recall his uncle saying “you’re going to be great one day.”
Mize recalls those early days fondly, of his nephew learning to dribble with both hands and practicing layups. The proud uncle points out that Cockfield “always has been quick.”
It was special for Mize to watch Cockfield thrive in the sport he helped the youngster learn.
“He really excelled doing that,” Mize said. “He just picked it up and started running with it.”
Mize was at every Johnson home game this season with shirts he made to support his nephew. He’s “extremely proud” of the season Cockfield put together. It reminds him of how Cockfield always wanted to play tough competition and rise to the challenge.
“He worked extremely hard at this,” Mize said. “He spent hours and hours on the court trying to make himself better.”
‘Parents away from home’
Part of Cockfield’s success may have come from the connection he shared with his coach.
Steele said he and his top player don’t trust others easily and took a little while to build trust with each other. But once they did, Steele said, they were “really like father and son.”
“They’re like my parents away from home,” Cockfield said of Steele and his wife, Donna. “They took me in sophomore year, and ever since they’ve treated me like a son.”
With that dynamic came what Cockfield called “tough love.”
“It just made me better,” Cockfield said. “I knew the way he was talking, it came from love. And it made me better.”
Steele said his approach with Cockfield was part of what enabled the team to jell so strongly.
“If you don’t coach your best players, then you kind of lose your team as a whole,” Steele said. “I was probably harder on him than anyone else. He wants to win. That kind of filtered down through the team, I think, and just made us stronger.”
Steele was impressed with Cockfield’s knack for saying the right thing and looking to involve all his teammates while chasing competitive greatness.
“He was just a great example of how it should be done,” Steele said.
‘Family’ wins together
Cockfield didn’t hesitate in pinpointing when the Knights realized they could have such a strong run.
He pointed to Donna Steele speaking to the team before its Dec. 30 game against Gainesville in the Lanierland championship at Chestatee. She told the story of the underdog horse Seabiscuit. Cockfield said Gainesville had more athletes, but the Knights won that night with a “family” mentality.
That spurred a motto for Johnson.
“We consider each other brothers, family. Our motto was ‘nobody can beat family,’” Cockfield said. “When we got down and things got hard, we looked back on all the hard work.”
He was grateful for the role every teammate played in the Knights earning a second straight Lanierland championship and third straight Region 8-AAAA crown.
“I love them to death,” Cockfield said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
It wasn’t easy dealing with the heightened expectations and attention that an undefeated regular season brought, but Cockfield and his teammates embraced the spotlight.
“Pressure’s really good for you,” Cockfield said. “And we just used that to our advantage.”
Proving doubters wrong
Cockfield has caught plenty of fans and observers’ eyes with his big plays. But part of what fuels him is those who don’t think he can reach his goals. He said every major accomplishment he’s made, at least five people told him it wasn’t possible.
One such question he has faced is whether he can play in college.
“Growing up, a lot of people told me I couldn’t do it,” Cockfield said. “I went out and played my heart out every game.”
As his senior season heated up, college attention started coming his way. He’s heard from the likes of Utah, Clemson, George Mason, Georgia Southern, Robert Morris, Stetson, Florida A&M and Tennessee-Chattanooga.
So Cockfield’s not done on the hardwood just yet. He just has to figure out where he wants to keep playing.
“He has dreams. He’s going to keep pursuing them,” Jeff Steele said. “That’s what he should be doing.”