JONESBORO — When the clock struck triple zeros on the night of March 3, 2016 at the Macon Centreplex, the Jonesboro Cardinals were faced with something foreign to the program over the three seasons prior — defeat.
For just the 12th time in 99 games, Jonesboro was forced to watch another team celebrate in victory. The Cardinals came up just short in their quest for a third straight state title, a feat which had only occurred one other time in the history of Class AAAA.
Understandably so, Jonesboro players and coaches were heartbroken after the 58-52 loss. The sting of defeat lingered into the spring and summer, and only worsened when news broke that the goals used at the Macon Centreplex weren’t placed at the right distances.
But, as usually happens after crushing losses, the players in the Jonesboro basketball program have moved on from the disappointment of last March. And while the 2016-17 edition of the Cardinals are ready to take on the upcoming season, the narrow loss to Liberty County is acting as the most effective of motivational tactics.
“It’s just a different feeling after losing that game,” said head coach Dan Maehlman. “I have a lot more energy. I’m looking forward to getting the season started. It’s almost like that chip I always had on my shoulder, not that it went away, but it wasn’t as prevalent last year as I can feel it on my shoulder now.”
The thought of an even more determined Maehlman is a scary thought for the rest of the state. Add to the mix the return of senior forward M.J. Walker, and there’s no reason the Cardinals can’t return to the top of the mountain this season.
Walker too has been motivated by the loss to Liberty County. According to Maehlman, the highly sought after recruit has improved even more this summer in preparation for his final season as a Cardinal.
“It’s crazy, he just keeps getting better. Like when I think he can’t get any better, he gets better,” said Maehlman. “If there is a point in his game like you need to improve your three-point shooting, three weeks later you look at him and he’s knocking down threes left and right.
“This is just the beginning for him,” he added. “This is little stuff compared to what he’s getting ready to go do in his future.”
Walker averaged 22 points per game last season, but Jonesboro will need more than just its star leader. Walker said he has been encouraged by the energy his the team has shown during the offseason.
“It was a hard pill to swallow. It’s a new team this year, new guys,” said Walker. “I feel like the energy is different. Everybody is comfortable with each other and feeling each other out. I feel like it’s a new year. We’re not really worried about last year. We lost, you don’t win them all, but I definitely have a lot of confidence heading into this year.”
Walker will be joined by junior forward Jamari Smith as the team’s lone returning starters. Smith, who scored nearly 10 points per game last season, agreed that this year’s team, while different, is getting along well leading into the season.
“This year’s team, it feels like we’re more together than last year’s team,” said Smith. “We have different key guys coming back from off the bench last year that will be in a major spotlight and I think they will produce for us. We have good chemistry.”
Players hoping to shine with increased playing time include junior guard Myles Black, junior forward Jamari Mosley and senior transfer Jaylon Terrell.
The players who do suit up for Jonesboro will be challenged this season from the get-go. The Cardinals will compete in Region 4-AAAAAA with the likes of Tucker, Stephenson and MLK, as well as several fellow county teams.
“I think the kids are going to be more amped up and ready to play,” said Maehlman. “Every night, every night. There’s not one slouch on our schedule to where we can sit there and look on paper and say we’re going to beat these guys.”
It’s been a long nine months for the Jonesboro basketball program. The team may look different outside of Walker and Smith, but don’t expect the results on the floor to differ too much.
“The kids, the way they’ve worked from playing in the summer all the way up until now, the transformation of the young kids, getting better and just how they all get along with each other, I’m really looking forward to it,” said Maehlman.