If you peaked at the scoreboard during virtually any part of the Newton Lady Rams’ basketball team’s last two games, you would think there’s a finished product on the floor.
Newton’s defeated its last two opponents – The Heritage School of Newnan and county rival Eastside -- by a combined score of 141-64. Yet coach Tiffani Johnson, now in her 11th year leading the program, says she’s done more hands-on teaching with this bunch than she’s had to do in quite a while.
“We have so many young players,” Johnson said. “Some that haven’t even played JV yet, so for many of them it’s the first time on varsity.”
She mentioned players like freshman Je-Naya Smith who came out and scored 21 points in the season opener against Henry County two weeks ago. Also power forward Sariniti Thomas who, though a junior, is getting her first varsity minutes of her high school career.
In all, Johnson says there are nine fresh faces on a squad regarded by most high school hoops pollsters as the fifth-ranked team in Class AAAAAAA. Perhaps some of that is due to reputation. But even despite the youth, Johnson has some bonafide ballers adorning her roster.
Leading the Youth Movement
One could start with the obvious name, junior guard Lexii Chatman. She led the team in scoring as a sophomore, and has become even more of a sharpshooter this season. But more than her scoring prowess, Johnson said she’s excited about the intangibles she brings to both the court and the classroom.
“I’m really proud of Lexii and what she’s become on and off the court,” Johnson said. “Everywhere, she’s done a great job becoming a vocal leader for this team. She’s a great student in the classroom. All of her teachers love her. You won’t find too many people who have anything bad to say about her.”
Chatman’s presence can be easily discerned far beyond the stat sheet. If there’s a verbal pick-me-up that has to happen for her team, it’s usually her that does it. When the Lady Rams get into a slump, it’s usually No. 3 who’s going to try to hit a big shot or make a big play to pull them out.
It’s a role that Johnson says she took on as a sophomore, but has fully embraced as a junior.
“She has definitely matured into that vocal leader, and she’s become comfortable with putting the team on her shoulders,” Johnson said. “She’s gotten stronger and knows what that means to have that load, and she wants that.”
Said Chatman: “This year, really being a leader, I’m trying to help set that brand for my team to follow and for others to notice. I’m a smaller player, and we’re a smaller team. But I want people to see our hustle makes up for our height.”
Building the Newton brand
Speaking of the word, “brand,” that’s something Johnson has been adamant about crafting since she first showed up as a coach several years after having a successful playing career at Newton.
After her team’s last practice before the Eastside game, Johnson waxed reminiscent about how the “accidental” way she ended up pacing the sidelines at Newton in the first place. She remembers being asked by then-Newton principal David Easterday, during a random visit to the school, to come back to her alma mater and give coaching a chance.
At first she was hesitant, but the desires of stability that often accompany a recent college graduate began to speak louder than her apprehensions. She eventually said yes, and hasn’t regretted it sense.
“I was young,” she said. “I wanted the benefits of teaching. I needed something stable, so I did it and honestly I ended up loving it. I love what I do, the teaching, the coaching. Trying to build these young ladies. The end product. The opportunity to be an influence. I wouldn’t replace it with anything.”
And that’s where the brand comes in.
Back in Johnson’s Newton playing days, the Lady Rams had a reputation for being tenacious, tough and energetic on the court. Johnson says that having such a large crop of newer faces gives her the chance to inculcate the meaning of the Newton brand afresh.
“We want that name Newton to represent not just wins on the floor,” she said. “We want that brand to be when you guys see these girls, who I say are like my daughters – when you see them, we want you to see these girls have had positive mentoring, shaping and molding that’s not just about the wins.
“We want you to see good, young ladies who produce some good ball and give everything they have on the floor. Will it result to wins all the time? I don’t know. But I don’t ever want a fan to come to a game and leave saying, ‘I wish they’d have played harder.’”
A lasting impact
That description points to players like senior Janelle Cook. No one will mistake Cook for a chatterbox, but she says enough to let you know how impactful playing for Johnson at Newton has been for her.
“I mean, it’s improved me a lot,” she said. “I like playing here. As a senior, I like trying to set examples. Like being the first in a line or the first to do a drill right.”
Johnson notices it, too. But she believes there’s even more to Cook than meets the eye.
“With Janelle, she’s more a person who leads by example,” Johnson said. “Her talent speaks for itself. She’s great with the basketball, and she has a lot left that we’re trying to pull out of her. I’m excited to get the chance to try and do that.”
And just so you’re not left wondering, there’s no feelings of competition or being overshadowed by the No. 2 ranked Newton boys team and their long standing success. If anything, Johnson sees what the Newton boys are doing as an extended opportunity for her and her team.
“It’s just a better example of the Newton brand,” she said. “The boys are the hottest thing going right now, and it fills our stands up, and the reality is while girls’ sports has definitely increased in popularity, it still suffers with support. So when the gym fills up early with the boys’ fans, we feel like we want to go out and play to where they become our fans too.”
So far, so good. And as long as Johnson is around, the brand building process seems destined to only improve.
“I bleed blue and white to the depths of my soul,” she said. “It would really, really, really be heard to coach at another place. Not another high school. And I’m not necessarily interested in the collegiate level. To me, there’s no better job. I couldn’t ask for anything more – except maybe a 6-foot-2 post player.”