By Matt Nestor
That is what it looks like when the Jefferson J-Hawks take the floor. They change players in waves and spend the entire game running up and down the floor.
The pressure helps them cause a lot of turnovers, which lead to easy baskets. The other thing it helps coach Todd Brannan do is get a lot of players involved in the game.
“I prefer to coach that way,” Brannan said. “I like to play a lot of kids. I think that is good for team camaraderie. It makes for good practices because kids know they’re going to play when game time comes.”
That depth, as well as the chemistry it has led to, has helped the J-Hawks jump out to a 12-4 start, 5-1 in the NIC-10. Jefferson has also returned an experienced group that has had its share of success in the past.
Seniors Mario Manns, Mershon Wilkes, Patrick Welsh, Marcus Marshall, Jermarkus Lovett, Chris King and Jordan Hardy have won at every stop. It’s a group that won their conference as a freshman, had success as sophomores and won 10 games leading the varsity team as juniors.
That experience has helped lead the J-Hawks in some tough games this season. Jefferson has seen many of its games come down to the last minutes, and every time the J-Hawks have someone step up and make a play.
“I think our experience has helped us win some games when we haven’t played our best,” Brannan said. “We like to play some high-scoring games, but we’ve won some ugly games. I’m happy with our record, though I know we need to play better, and I think we will play better.”
While the J-Hawks have had their struggles, especially at the free throw line, they have a lot they do well. They are the fastest and most athletic team in the conference, and while they lack any size, they seem to be as tough as anyone in the conference on the boards.
“We’re not blessed with a lot of height, but we have a lot of quickness and a lot of speed, and we try to play to that strength,” Brannan said. “They’ve got a lot of heart. They never look like they panic. Even when things aren’t going that well, they always stay pretty calm, and I think that’s a credit to the kids.”
All the winning has caused excitement around the program. Brannan said more kids are going out for basketball than ever before. He said there are 21 kids playing for the freshman team, and there are players on all levels that he thinks can help sustain the program down the road.
“Once you start winning, people want to jump on board,” Brannan said of the basketball program. “More than anything, we’ve changed the attitude around here. Kids are excited about playing. It’s fun to be a part of the program. We play some juniors, I think we have some sophomores that can help us, and some freshmen I can see being varsity players in the near future.”
With excitement building at the school, it’s only natural that the community would follow. The J-Hawks have one of the best followings in the NIC-10, and local sponsors are evident all over the arena.
Brannan, who graduated from Jefferson in 1989, said local donations that totaled more than $20,000 allowed them to get a new floor. He also said a number of alumni are starting to come back to the program and do what they can to help.
“I think (the success) has brought the community together,” he said. “We have seen so many people I hadn’t seen since high school, just coming back and excited to watch Jefferson play. Two or three different times, we had alumni who were basketball players come and talk to our kids. We had a couple talk to them in the pre-game and get them fired up.”
All of the excitement for the program has led to high expectations. While the Boylan Titans are the favorite for the conference, many think Jefferson has the talent to upend them. These expectations also extend to the state tournament, where the J-Hawks will have a chance to make a run.
Brannan said he thinks the J-Hawks have not played their best basketball yet. Despite that, they are off to a good start. If the J-Hawks can get consistent shooting, which allows them to set up their pressure defense, they just may be able to live up to those lofty expectations.
“You have to have a little luck, and you have to stay healthy,” Brannan said. “I think the sky is the limit for the kids. They never panic, and they always believe they can win. Once you have that confidence, somebody is going to make a play. We have some tough games coming up, and that is going to test where we are at. When we play to our best, when we play to our potential, we are right there with the top of the conference.”
From the Jan. 13-19, 2010 issue.