McGEHEE — The McGehee Owls began the year on a 22-game winning streak and suffered their only setback of the season in the 3A state semifinals.
The stellar season, including the best record in school history, earned Jerome Pace the Southeast Arkansas Coach of the Year award, which won’t come as a shock to many, but did to Pace.
“It’s kind of a surprise,” he said. “Coaches don’t really think about things like that much. We’re only as good as our product we put out on the court.
“I’m honored, though, because I know there were a lot of good teams out there. Monticello had a good record. I know (Watson) Chapel had a good record.
“I’m really surprised, just to be honest with you.”
The honor came as a pleasant surprise to Pace’s leading scorer, too.
“Coach was real important to our season,” senior Tracey Lawson said. “He stayed hard on us and we needed it.
“With any other coach, we wouldn’t have finished games off.”
Admitting there’s only so much a coach can do from the sidelines, Pace credited Lawson and junior Ryan Berry with being “coaches on the court.”
“Tracey Lawson did a very good job of that,” Pace said. “Ryan Berry did a good job, too.
“Tracey knew who had fouls and who to attack. Tracey is really a student of the game.”
Lawson, who averaged 20 points a game, was one of five Owls to average in double-digits on the season. Berry (15 points a game) and fellow juniors Evander Bailey (12), Trevon Spratt (12) and Kieanis Henry (10) rounded out the balanced starting five of McGehee.
Having starters average a combined 69 points per game is a recipe for plenty of wins, but even Pace couldn’t have imagined the incredible run the Owls went on to start the year.
As the wins piled up, most teams would have wilted under the pressure of a possible perfect regular season.
Not the Owls. In fact, Pace said the team thrived on it.
“As we kept winning, I told them, ‘Instead of us chasing people, you are the rabbit,’” Pace said. “It’s a lot different being the rabbit than it is being the dog.
“It was interesting to see how they came together.”
Pace thinks the key to the team was the hard work his players put in on the defensive end of the court.
“They bought in and worked hard on defense,” Pace said. “There was no anger amongst these kids. No competing about who’s going to have the most points.
“The only competing was about who’s going to guard the other team’s best player.”
The selfless attitude helped the Owls rack up an 8-3A Conference championship and translated to plenty of postseason success, too.
The Owls took home an 8-3A District title and a 3A Region 4 championship, the latter earning McGehee a No. 1 seed in the 3A state tournament in Charleston.
McGehee squeaked past Harding Academy, 61-53, and Cedarville, 42-39, in its first two games to reach the semifinals.
There, the Owls met the same team that eliminated them in the same round the year before. Once again, Episcopal Collegiate got the better of McGehee with a 67-55 win.
“They said this team won’t beat us again,” Pace said of how his team reacted to the loss. “It was hard getting beat by the same team two years in a row.
“It’s tough because I thought we had a little bit better chance this year.”
Lawson won’t be back next season, but he thinks with Berry, Bailey, Spratt and Henry returning, the team has a chance to be even better.
“I believe they will be even better,” Lawson said of next year’s squad. “They will have a lot of talent coming off the bench.
“And I think they’ll have five seniors to carry on the team success.”
Pace earning the COY honor is validation of the terrific season McGehee had, something that means a lot to Lawson.
“My freshman year, I didn’t know that much,” Lawson said. “It means that whatever coach Pace is telling us is working.
“It’s tremendous for us.”