LINCOLNTON â€” For Lincolnton Wolves junior varsity head basketball coach John Cloninger his last season with the JV squad couldnâ€™t have been more bittersweet.
The JV Wolves basketball team finished 19-1 overall and 15-1 in conference play to earn an outright league title, Cloningerâ€™s first and last with the team.
â€œI gave it all I could give it,â€ he said. â€œI enjoyed working with all the kids. Theyâ€™ve always been a pleasure to coach and I appreciate the experience.â€
Cloninger, who has coached the JV team for six years, is leaving to spend more time with his dental business. He will stay on the Wolves basketball coaching staff, along with his brother Paul (Cloninger), as assistant to head coach Bob Cowie to help with the varsity team.
When Cloninger looked around at his 10-man squad on the first day of practice he said he knew the team could be special.
â€œWhen I saw Kalid Poole play the defense like I knew he could play, Jonathan Gidney making some jump shots, Jalen (Littlejohn) no matter if he missed the shot he hustled back just as hard on defense than he did the previous defensive possession,â€ the Wolves coach said. â€œâ€¦ I knew we could do something special if they were willing to work.â€
It all started with their preparation and then the team rolled off to an 11-0 start. The team was beginning to believe in one another and expectations were high as an unselfish team began to look unstoppable.
â€œI told them if you go out there and play as hard as you can and due to preparation in practice, youâ€™re going to be smart enough to do the right thing,â€ Cloninger said. â€œAs long as you play as a team, it doesnâ€™t matter who scores, as long as someone scores weâ€™ll have a very successful year, and they took that.â€
Eleven straight wins was great but a loss to West Lincoln snapped the team back to reality. The game gave the Wolves a very valuable learning experience, Cloninger said.
Some Rebels fans said â€œsome mean and hurtful choice wordsâ€ but it the Wolves coach who said he thought the boys turned a negative experience into a positive.
â€œWhen we lost to West Lincoln there was an incident where some of their fans weâ€™re calling our kids a bad name, and I told the kids after the game that I could care less if we won or lost, I want â€˜yaâ€™ll to understand that there are some ignorant people out there, but there are also very kind people out there,â€ he said. â€œAnd I said â€˜thatâ€™s the reason we got to school because you further yourself through education. I said, when people donâ€™t further themselves through education their ignorant and you can see what ignorant people do and how they act.â€™â€
After the loss Cloninger said the kids continued to have a good attitude, in fact he thought it was one of their best attributes as they continued to work hard the rest of the season and finished by winning their last eight games in a row.
â€œAs far as attitudes go, this has been the most pleasant year that Iâ€™ve experienced. Iâ€™ve enjoyed it more than you know and this was the best team attitude-wise, but I donâ€™t know if itâ€™s the best team talent-wise,â€ the Lincolnton coach said. â€œEvery one of those kids are wholesome and it was a joy to be able to go to practice every day, and to be around them.â€
Cloninger said he feels that discipline was one the keys to the teams success. He felt that the kids responded better when they were disciplined.
â€œWe stayed on them and we told them from Day 1 that if we donâ€™t stay on you that means that we forgot about you or donâ€™t care about you and they didnâ€™t complain,â€ he said. â€œThere were times when they were getting down on themselves but they never complained about what we were doing. I think they believed in us which had a turnaround and we truly believed in them, I believed in them.â€
The results spoke for themselves as the Wolves averaged 45 points per game offensively and allowed only 26 per game.
â€œOur whole motto was to play hard, play smart and play together. And to play together that means to play unselfish,â€ Cloninger said. â€œI thought these kids were very unselfish and probably were at a point to where they shouldâ€™ve taken some shots instead of passing, but they wanted their teammates to have the easier shot.â€
Cloninger said he felt like the kids understood the true concept of team, and â€œthat no one person was bigger than the team.â€
â€œItâ€™s like an old coach would say, itâ€™s not the Xâ€™s and Oâ€™s itâ€™s the Willys and the Joes,â€ the Wolves coach said with a smile. â€œWe had some Willys and we had some Joes, and it made the Xâ€™s and Oâ€™s a lot easier.â€
When the team beat North Lincoln 54-22 on January 30 in Pumpkin Center, Cloninger said the team told him they were going to win the conference. That desire, dedication and ability to finish was what the coach believed was his squads best attribute.
â€œThey would have a great defensive possession where they would go to the line and knock down free throws or we would sub in and out in certain situations and everyone was in tune with it. We just finished, and you donâ€™t see that any more.â€
Cloninger said he enjoyed his time spent with the team and learned a lot in his six years of working with Coach Cowie.
â€œI feel like the luckiest guy in the world coaching these guys and I appreciate how they worked,â€ he said. â€œTheir unselfishness made it easier and I didnâ€™t look forward to the end of the season.â€
Michael Cunningham, Gidney, Craig Goodson, Kevin Miller, Poole, Littlejohn, Brad Wilson, Wesley Perkins, Jaden Angle, Jalen Brooks and honorary team member Corbin Brusso were all members of the Wolves championship season.
Cloninger said due to the varsity losing seven seniors he feels that a majority of the JV players would move up to varsity next season.
There was no word on who would replace Cloninger as the teamsâ€™ JV coach next season.
by Michael Christopher