March 30, 2013 11:28:26 PM
Being a graduate of Mississippi State University, Mark Alexander already had a pulse on the boys basketball program at Starkville Academy.
Alexander knew the Volunteers had experienced more struggles than happy times. In the past decade, the squads have battled to break even and postseason success was nonexistent.
Despite that history, Alexander felt like the timing was right two years ago when the school called him back home to be its coach.
That decision is paying off.
While a 17-16 record isn't state championship worthy, it is big news in Oktibbeha County. For his squad's success this season, Alexander is The Dispatch's Boys Basketball Coach of Year.
"It is a tremendous credit to the kids," Alexander said. "We only had eight players, and none of them stood taller than 6-foot-1. However, from the first day, they worked hard to become the best basketball team they could become. I am awfully proud of them for the success they had this season."
The winning season was Starkville Academy's first in five seasons. By winning two games at the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AAA, Division II tournament and advancing to the Class AAA overall tournament, Starkville Academy saw postseason success for the first time in nine seasons.
"Having a winning season wasn't really the goal at the beginning of the season," Alexander said. "As the season went along, we realized we had a chance to do that. I really made that our rallying cry in the second half of the season, and really made it a big deal. The kids really responded."
The Volunteers play a slow-paced, physical brand of basketball. The squad plays relentless defense and watches for the right time to attack offensively. With small numbers and size, Alexander felt like that gave his team its best chance at victory.
"It all started with Brandon Sharp and Carnail Minor," Alexander said. "Those are two of the smartest players I have ever coached. With Brandon running the point, it was like having another coach on the floor. We played 14 games decided by five points or fewer. In those 14 games, we were 11-3.
"That is a sign of a smart club. That is a sign of a team working hard an understanding its limitations. I thought we were just an outstanding team when the game was really on the line."
Still, it took Starkville Academy a little time to learn how to win those games.
"When we started the year, we played Choctaw Central, Jackson Academy, Jackson Prep and Madison-Ridgeland (Academy)," Alexander said. "We were really struggling early. But I saw a great attitude in practice. After we would lose a game, the kids would come in mad and flustered. It was not a bad kind of mad or flustered. Instead, it was a belief that they were better than they showed. In each practice, it was like 'What can we do to show we are better?' "
The light switch was then thrown. Starkville Academy defeated Pillow Academy, East Rankin Academy, and Copiah Academy.
"We didn't win a conference game last season," Alexander said. "Two of those three wins were conference wins, and they were on the road. We were down 14 at Copiah and came all the way back to win. I wasn't sure how good we were going to be because we still had some obstacles to overcome. However, I knew the kids had the right attitude and a chance to do something special."
For the Volunteers, the team's confidence level began with being well-prepared in practice.
"I always thought we had a chance to win every game," said Sharp, a two-year starter at point guard for Alexander. "We worked so hard in practice. We paid attention to the little details. It just came down to making shots. When we were able to make shots, we gave ourselves a chance to win. The confidence came from the coaches though. They put us in a position."
As the victories mounted, the fans began to notice. For the past two seasons, the Starkville Academy girls have stolen the headlines. The Lady Volunteers won all three MAIS state championships in each of the past two seasons.
"When I got here, we were playing our games in an empty gym," Alexander said. "Without taking anything away from the girls team because we are their biggest supporters, but after you see them come in and roll somebody, you want to put a competitive product on the floor. I think the guys were really motivated by all the success of the girls team.
"Slowly, we built something people wanted to see. I think our fans realized this was a hard-working group of guys who were fun to watch. Last season, no one was ask me the next day if we had won or lost. They just assumed we lost. This season was different. This year, people were asking me how we did the night before and you could tell they were honest and sincere and wanted to know what was going on."
Anyone who knows Alexander's track record shouldn't find success as a surprise. His seven-year coaching career includes successful stints at Silverdale Baptist (Tenn.), Tennessee Temple Academy, and Manchester Academy. Alexander said two other coach of year honors at previous stops also came after 17-win seasons.
"I like to run a lot of set plays and I like to be organized," Alexander said. "Ideally, I would like to press and shoot a lot of 3s. However, that was not the make-up of this team, so you change your philosophy to meet your team's style. The No. 1 thing we ask our players is to play hard and to do what we ask them to do. If you play hard, that will carry you a long way in this game.
"Our goal each game is to play hard, play smart, and play together. When you look at the 11-3 record in 14 close games, you win those games by playing together. That is how that happens."
The coaching philosophy was shaped during a standout basketball career under veteran coach Shelby Watts at Forest Hill High School. Alexander was a quarterback at Forest Hill. He also played basketball and baseball, ran track, and played golf and tennis. The playing career ended with a one-year stint at Belhaven University.
After leaving Belhaven, Alexander spent three seasons as a student manager at MSU learning the game under then-coach Richard Williams and then-assistant coach Rick Stansbury.
"Most of my coaching philosophy comes from Richard Williams," Alexander said. "I will get ready to say something in practice and I will stop and realize that is something coach Williams would have said. The other big influence is coach Stansbury.
"I learned so much about coaching the actual game come from coach Williams. I learned how to conduct myself off the court from coach Stansbury. I am very thankful for that opportunity at MSU because it shaped who I am as a coach today."
A 15-year newspaper career followed with sports reporting stints at the Starkville Daily News and Jackson Clarion-Ledger. Even though coaching wasn't in the original plans, Alexander, 45, never lost his love for the game of basketball.
"The Clarion-Ledger presented me a unique opportunity," Alexander said. "I covered Mississippi State's run to the Final Four. I attended every practice of every team. Even thought I was reporting, I would analyze philosophy and coaching decisions. I covered every event from the prospective."
Finally, the lure to coach was too much to overcome. A career change began on the back roads of Chattanooga at Silverdale. The next year, Tennessee Temple Academy came calling.
"At Tennessee Temple, I was the athletic director," Alexander said. "We had no money for another coach. I coached the varsity girls, varsity boys, junior varsity teams, junior high teams, middle school teams, elementary schools. I did more coaching in three years there then most do in 10 years. Five hours a day it was practice and nothing else.
"Those early days have also shaped the coach I am today. I am thankful for every stop and every opportunity. It's all about the kids and will always be about the kids. This year, I feel very fortunate because these kids over-achieved in so many ways."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
3. Heritage Academy softball will try to take next step HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
4. Mixed reaction to decision to move MHSAA football title games HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS