Paula Jones: East Coweta to honor longtime girls basketball coach
By CHRIS GOLTERMANN
By the time she was in eighth grade, Paula Jones knew what she wanted to do with the rest of her life — at least until she had ‘retired’ as an athlete.
Coaching seemed to be the natural next step for a South Carolina girl with a competitive spitfire for sports, particularly in basketball. East Coweta High’s girls program is all the better the last 24 seasons because of that choice.
“When you think of East Coweta girls basketball, you think of Paula and her success,” said high school principal and former ECHS athletic director Evan Horton. “She’s a pillar of this community. The relationships she’s had with these players over the years has made an impact in so many of their lives.”
Jones seems ready to close another chapter of her career with a 1-year-old granddaughter to visit and a chance to spend more time outside of basketball with her husband, who has remained her official scorekeeper.
“I don’t know” she said, jokingly. “He might miss the games more.”
Either way, a little country school in Sharpsburg that eventually ballooned to one of the state’s largest enrollments became her final coaching stop following jobs in Ohio, South Carolina and a five-year stint at nearby Flint River Academy.
And there’s still more games remaining.
Before retiring at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season, however, ECHS gets a chance to honor the longest current standing varsity head coach in Coweta County following tonight’s 7 p.m. game against Region 3-AAAAAA opponent Tri-Cities at John Thrower Gym.
Typically this time of the year, Jones relishes a chance to reconnect with a special game night honoring the Lady Indians’ alumni. A player at Winthrop (S.C.) in her college years, some of the bonds Jones has created with her own athletes have lasted well beyond high school.
“Seeing them succeed that’s what it’s all about,” she said. “The relationships with players and parents has always been a positive for me.”
Tonight, however, the focus turns to Jones, as much as she’s tried to turn the spotlight on her players since arriving at prior to the 1988-89 season at a newly built high school campus.
“It’s time. I feel good about it,” she said, while admitting that she nearly turned in her whistle following a 10-16 season last year where the Lady Indians fell short of the Class AAAAA state playoffs. “It’s been fun and I’ve been very fortunate. It’s been what I’ve meant to do I guess. I knew [I wanted to coach] in the eight grade.”
Growing up in a small town, basketball was the only sports offering Jones had as a child while growing to love athletics.
“Small towns had girls basketball and some didn’t even have it at all. I grew up being competitive with the neighborhood boys. I loved it,” she said. “Winthop happened to have girls basketball and I played volleyball my last two years. It was still three-on-three when I got there and I hated that rope at midcourt. Basketball went to five-on-five my second year in college. I was so glad.”
Her success evolved into a coaching career that’s included two Sweet 16s, two appearances in the Elite 8 and a trip to the 1997-98 Class AAAA state finals. Many, though, did it as underdogs that played their best basketball at the close of the season.
“I’d rather it be like that than the other way around,” Jones said. “It’s a lot easier to be the underdog than to have all the pressure on you.”
Standout Amy Krach, who contributed heavily to the program’s success in the mid 1990s had graduated by the time a group of senior starters put together a balanced effort during a Final Four run in 1998.
The group, which included seniors Pam Hall, Donna Hanson, Tameika Bridges, Josephine Render and Heather Guy began with an upset of No. 1 Griffin in the region finals at a time where only two region lineups advanced to the state tournament.
The team eventually reached the finals on Bridges’ game-winning shot with 7.2 seconds remaining to beat No. 2 Morrow in what became longtime Lady Mustangs head coach E.C. McCullers final varsity appearance.
“I was always exhausted after practice. We always worked hard,” said former Lady Indian and current assistant Suzie Shelnutt, who as a junior on the 1997-98 Final Four lineup. “But we worked as a team.”
Promising as the 2012-13 lineup has been in its last few weeks, it may take a herculean effort for a current 3-16 team to find enough magic to make a final state tournament run out of a tough region that’s included three standout lineups in state-ranked Langston Hughes, Douglas County and Westlake, which trailed the Lady Indians after three quarters during Tuesday’s game.
“We’re a whole lot better than when we started,” said Jones, who started freshmen guards Ayanna Reid and Eboni Williams in Tuesday’s tough loss among a lineup that also includes three seniors, a junior and three sophomores. “We’ll try and get as far as we can. The last three games we’ve played really well.”
Over the past 24 seasons, East Coweta lineups have gotten hot before — especially come the postseason.
“That’s the time you want to play well,” said Jones. “When it gets to tournament time, that’s the fun part.”
Megan Darrah, the program’s all-time leading scorer with 1,784 points, remembers being part of a 16-11 lineup as a junior that reached the Class AAAAA Elite 8 in 2003. She then helped lead East Coweta to a 21-9 record as a senior in another trip to the quarterfinals.
“We never had the most talent as a team compared to some of the other schools,” said Darrah. “We had our share of ups and downs. But we overcame those obstacles. That’s nothing but a testament to her.”
The final year has been enjoyable, regardless of the finish. She’s been joined by two familiar faces on the bench both inside and outside the program. Shelnutt, who was a key contributor on East Coweta’s state runner-up team, is in her first year as an assistant.
“It’s truly an honor to come back and coach alongside her. Just to learn from her in a different perspective,” Shelnutt said of her first year of coaching and teaching. “She’s been extremely patient helping me transition into this. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work with.”
Shelnutt has been joined by former Lee girls coach Jared Waggoner, who led the school to back-to-back middle school league titles in 2010 and 2011 while posting a combined 23-1 record.
“I’ve known him since he was little,” said Jones of Waggoner, who became friends with her son, Leigh Heaberlin, who went on to become a standout athlete at East Coweta before going on to a coaching career of his own at Sandy Creek as a football and baseball assistant.
It’s a long way since her son was following mom around practices as an elementary school student.
At a time when George H. Bush had been elected to succeed President Ronald Reagan and the Atlanta Hawks’ lineup still included thundering dunks by Dominique Wilkins at the Omni, East Coweta’s new gym opened with a carpet floor that has since gone back to traditional wood.
It wasn’t easy either at the start, winning just three games as well in her ‘rookie’ season at East Coweta including one by forfeit.
Some of the losses — especially early on — were equally tough to swallow. They included a 109-30 loss to defending state champion Upson-Lee.
“Did we even score 30 points?,” Jones recalled. “And they pressed the whole game. They didn’t care. I said ‘alright, go ahead. It took me a few years. It was just a matter of getting in here and saying, this is girls basketball. I wanted the program to be successful.
When she arrived, East Coweta hadn’t made the state playoffs since it was a ‘B’-classification program in 1977. Twice in the 1970s, the Lady Indians reached the finals, the latter of which in 1974 with a lineup that included Venetia Garrison.
By the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, however, Jones had helped establish the program as a consistent winner even though at times the number of athletes playing basketball didn’t change a whole lot.
Over the span of a near quarter century, the high school has grown enough to have seen Jones coach in all six GHSA classifications, starting with Class A in ‘88-89.
“We’ve grown in size ten times since I’ve been here,” Jones said. “But we’ve still had the same numbers come out.”
The process was with equal parts love and censure toward players. There have been as many smiles by Jones following last-second victories as screeches to athletes when taking an ill-timed shot during a game over the years to the admission of her former players.
“She was very tough. She expected a lot out of us,” said Amey Stewart, who was a standout for East Coweta’s 1991-92 and 1992-93 teams. “You knew not to sit right beside her or she might sling clipboards or kick the chair. When she got upset, you ducked and covered.”
Shelnutt jokingly recalled her own struggles here and there.
“My junior year I thought the only name Coach knew was Suzie Shelnutt,” she said. “I do remember her telling me one time, ‘Suzie, this is not the NBA!’”
Those same players, however, also remember a different coach off the floor — one that was both receptive and welcoming.
“She was extremely influential on me going on to play in college,” said Stewart, now a medical records clerk for Piedmont, who initially went on to attend Southern Union.
When Shelnutt when through a horrific car accident during the first month of her senior year, Jones was among the first to lend her support, organizing morning prayer groups before school and visiting the hospital regularly through her recovery.
“She was always very approachable,” she said. “I always knew I could come to her with anything that was on my mind.”
Darrah, who first got to know Jones as a watergirl for East Coweta in second grade saw shared traits in both Jones and University of Georgia coach Andy Landers.
“Both of them were very similar. They were quick to bounce back [after a loss],” she said. “When you walked off the floor it was over. They moved on.”
But having a female coach at ECHS provided an bond that was tough to match.
“It was like having a second mother,” Darrah added of Jones. “She always was there for us at school if we needed to talk about something other than basketball.”