Jonathan Hayes’s fifth season as Cullman’s varsity girls coach began much like his first with the program.
When he took over the reins back in 2009, Hayes didn’t have a single senior on his roster — only a couple of players had any varsity experience at all — making his initial foray into coaching the Bearcats a bit more difficult than anticipated.
Fast forward five years, and Hayes is feeling a bit nostalgic.
“This season kind of felt like that one,” he said. “It was very reminiscent. We only had one senior and a lot of inexperience. Coming into the year, we were getting everyone used to what we wanted to do on offense and defense. We were also trying to build confidence, too.”
Although it hasn’t quite been a banner 2013 campaign so far for the Black and Gold, Hayes has every reason to be optimistic and excited about what his team can do in the coming months.
Sure, Jorden Quick, Morgan Pitts, Blair Nall and Morgan Smith have all departed over the past two years.
Cullman sports a 10-6 mark midway through the season and had won five straight contests before falling to Class 3A Holly Pond in the finale of the Yule Tide Classic last Saturday.
All in all, Hayes said he was pretty pleased with the direction his team was trending heading into the new year.
“We’ve come on, especially on defense,” the coach said. “We are still finding our feet a little on offense, though. I think we’re getting better, but there are still bumps in the road.
“The girls have definitely bought in, though. As far as a team goes, I’m proud of where we are and where we’ve progressed. That’s a testament to these girls and their work ethic. We are not satisfied, though. Contentment will kill excellence. As you strive for that, you aren’t going to get much better if you are content with what you already have.”
The Bearcats certainly have the talent — and the evolving experience — to make some noise down the road.
It all starts with junior guard Baylee Johnson, whose growth over the past couple of seasons has been among the best in the county — possibly the state.
The sharp-shooter is averaging more than 22 points a game to go along with a steady amount of steals and assists as well.
Johnson said she and her teammates were lacking the proper confidence at the beginning of the year but have since moved on to more positive thoughts.
“We’ve all stepped up since then,” she said. “We didn’t think we’d be where we are at the start of the season, but we tried to get more confident, and we’ve played a lot better.”
Hayes is no doubt glad his junior star has played as crisp and as well as she has so far. Combined with her terrific leadership and ability to make those around her better, Hayes couldn’t be any more impressed with Johnson.
“She’s a tremendous talent,” he said. “Her work ethic is really incredible. She’s been great for us not only because of scoring, but also because she involves her teammates. I don’t know all that goes into deciding what an All-State guard is, but I think she is as deserving as anyone in the state.”
While Johnson has been the steady anchor for Cullman, other Bearcats such as Hayden Short, Christina Skinner and Oakleigh White have all come on strong since opening night.
For Hayes, the success of one season doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with wins and losses. Rather, the coach said he’d much prefer that his team grow, improve and be better than it was to start the year.
“I expect us to play our best and reach our potential,” Hayes said. “We are an extremely young team, so I have to remind all of them to not drop their heads when things aren’t going right. They have another year to get better. If we keep pushing and keep improving, then good things are bound to happen.”
This season could end with some sweet redemption for the Black and Gold.
The Bearcats were just a couple of minutes away from a spot in the Northwest Regional Tournament a season ago before a crushing home loss to Athens thwarted their plans for a trip.
However, this time around, Johnson and Co. plan to crash the party in February.
“That’d be awesome,” she said. “That’s one of my main goals. I’ve always loved playing at Wallace and having the whole entire school come out and watch us play. We want to make it there again and we are going to do whatever it takes to get there.”
% Jake Winfrey can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 136 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.