Benjie Wood can’t keep track of time this week. Between school, practice, film sessions, setting up travel accomodations and a family at home, the last few days have been a blur.
Like plenty of other coaches, he comes across as a workaholic. His days start early, end late, and this time of year there’s little-to-no time for leisure.
Basketball consumes him, and he’d have you believe that’s why he’s become one of the most successful high school coaches in an area where a statement like that is more than a mouthful.
“As far as what I do best as a coach, I’d have to say work hard,” Wood said this week, sitting in his office at the North Hall gym, squeezing an interview into an itinerary already stuffed from sun up to sun down. “I don’t claim to be a rocket scientist, but I’m going to work hard.”
That’s always been a defining characteristic for the 38-year-old, who’s already a 16-year coaching veteran, not including the two years he volunteered with an eighth-grade team while he was in college.
It stretches back beyond that.
Before the first game of his senior season in high school, Wood picked up a notebook and drove on his own to scout the upcoming opponent.
“What makes me proud is everybody that knows me, says I coach like I played,” Wood said. “It doesn’t take any talent to give effort.”
Maybe not, but it takes a very specialized talent to coax effort. And it takes more than hard work to turn a program that had been a basketball afterthought into an area power.
“He changed the culture there,” East Hall boys coach Joe Dix said. “They expect to win now, and that’s half the battle.”
During Wood’s four-year tenure at North Hall, the Trojans have yet to post a losing record. His first season at the school, he guided the Trojans to the region championship game and held the lead at halftime against an East Hall team that was far more talented than just about every team in the state. Though the Vikings eventually won and went on to the state title game that season, North Hall had served noticed that a new day was coming.
“That game set the tone for what’s happened since then,” Dix said. “You are what your record says you are, and for the last couple of years they’ve been better than us.”
Let that simmer for minute.
North Hall has been better than East Hall.
Not so long ago, it would have taken an other-worldly ability to suspend disbelief to even fathom such a statement.
Previously, as the Johnson girls coach, Wood made his name by knocking off the Tasha Humphrey-led Gainesville team in the Lanierland tournament semifinals. And by the time he left, the Lady Knights had become the best girls team in the area, winning back-to-back region titles and earning consecutive trips to Macon.
Simply put, he’s got a knack for knocking down giants. The reason why, opposing coaches will tell you, is because Wood’s teams are a reflection of who he is.
“You know they’re going to play extremely hard,” Dix said. “You know you’re going to have to play the right way to beat them.”
Gainesville girls coach Manson Hill had similar praise.
“What I remember about playing his teams is that specific style that Benjie likes to play,” he said. “You know they’re going to do it, but they do it so well, and so fundamentally sound, that it’s tough to stop.
“And defensively, they’ve always been very good at taking away your first option, and you always know they’re always going to bring a lot of effort.”
There’s no doubt this year’s North Hall team embodies those characteristics. They’ll be the smallest team in the Class AAA semifinals by an easy margin. When they take to court, they might get laughed at. They’ve gotten to this point by playing smart, fundamentally sound basketball.
But like their coach, they’re more than just a product of long workdays and grueling practice sessions.
There’s talent there, too — enough to earn both the team and the coach a rightful spot in Macon among the state’s best.
Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org