February 25, 2014 2:34:04 PM
ABERDEEN -- The moment hasn't proven to be too big for Cornelius Gilleylen.
After serving a two-year apprenticeship under legendary Aberdeen High School boys basketball coach Roy Hazzle, Gilleylen is in his first season as head coach for the tradition-rich Bulldogs.
The program is back where it usually resides. Fresh off Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 3A, Region 4 regular season and tournament championships, Aberdeen is a favorite to win the North State Class 3A championship.
Aberdeen (23-7) will begin that quest at 7 tonight when it plays host to Humphreys County (17-13) in the North State playoff. The squad will need to win three times this week to advance to Jackson and the MHSAA Class 3A State tournament.
"I've always thought of coaching as a gift from God," Gilleylen said. "It was my calling. I don't think you can practice to become a good coach. The same holds true on the basketball court. You can't practice being a leader. Having strong leadership qualities are something that you are born with.
"When God opens a door with an opportunity like this, you take full advantage of it. I doubt if He will ever point you in the wrong direction."
Gilleylen has had the Bulldogs pointed in the right direction this season. The team won the Monroe County championship, won its three games at the Travis Outlaw Slam Dunk at the Hump, and handed Class 6A power Starkville its only home loss of the regular season.
Aberdeen, which has won eight straight and 13 of its last 14, also didn't lose a region game in the regular season or tournament.
"Coach G possesses those special qualities you want in a coach," Hazzle said. "I think he is the total package. The last couple of years you felt like he was the type of coach the players trusted, and as an assistant, he had my complete trust. Seeing him succeed as the head coach is outstanding."
Hazzle carried Aberdeen to 15 region/district titles in his 26 seasons as coach. The Bulldogs played in the state tournament in Jackson six times. After each of the past three seasons, Hazzle announced his intentions to retire, but he somehow wound back up on the bench when the new season started.
Now he is gone for good.
"It was a weird change at first, because Coach G was more like our friend," Aberdeen senior center Cameron Belle said. "Then all of a sudden he was our head coach. The change has been good, though, because we still play the same way. Our mind-set is about defending hard for four quarters and winning championships. Those are still the same goals."
Gilleylen played basketball at county rival Amory High, so he was familiar with Aberdeen's tradition. From there, Gilleylen played at Itawamba Community College for two seasons and St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, for two more. His coaching career started at St. Edward's before he spent two seasons at East Central C.C. and another at Jones Junior College.
"The expectations have not changed one bit here," Gilleylen said. "If anything, I think they may have gone up because there is now a newer, younger guy in charge. You want those types of expectations. You want to be somewhere that cares. I think my job is much harder as a first-year coach in this environment, but I knew that when I accepted the position."
For Hazzle, the change to a slower pace has gone better than expected. He still hangs around the gym that bears his name and attends almost all of the games, but he sits at a distance, giving the team a chance to breathe in its new surroundings.
"The thing is to stay involved," Hazzle said. "I have found things to do. I am doing some volunteer work for the Monroe County Sherriff's Office. I am still very involved with helping the young people of the community. Giving back is something you can do your entire life. The retirement pace is a different one, but it's a fun one. A lot of time and energy was invested in that program. Now it's fun to be able to have other things to invest that time and energy into."
Gilleylen admits he learned so much about the game in his two seasons as Hazzle's assistant. Last year, Aberdeen finished 22-8 and lost to eventual state champion Velma Jackson in the North State Class 3A playoffs. In 2012, Hazzle's team made its last run to the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson. Aberdeen won its lone basketball state championship in 2008.
"Our relationship is unique, but it is outstanding," Gilleylen said. "I can go to him and talk about basketball philosophy. I can talk about life. He is always there to listen. We don't really get into the specifics about this year's team. As a first-year coach, if I am going to make a mistake, he steps back and lets me make that mistake. That is the only way I can learn and get better. To have him on our side in our corner is really great because he is one of the basketball coaching legends in this state."
Junior Marcus Carouthers leads Aberdeen with an average of 19.8 points per game. He felt a change of energy level at the first practice.
"Coach Hazzle was great," Carouthers said. "It is special for any of us who can say we played for him. Then when we came out this year, it was different but all good. It seems like we just have a higher energy level. We still have the same goals, the same game plan. We just go faster."
Gilleylen said there has been a slight change in philosophy. He likes to play more full-court pressure and also likes to force the issue on offense. However, he said any noticeable changes are dictated more by the makeup of that year's team instead of a different coaching strategy.
"We have lost 21 seniors in the last two years," Gilleylen said. "We have gone from an average size of 6-foot to 5-6, maybe 5-7. You have to do things differently. I think that is one of the things lost in coaching. In college, you recruit the types of players you want for your system. In high school, it is all about adapting to change. You have to change year to year based on what your personnel allow you to do."
Regardless of the personnel, Aberdeen continues to win. During the Travis Outlaw Tournament, Hazzle worked on a cookie in the hospitality room, while Gilleylen and his troops were down below working on a third-quarter deficit in a victory against New Hope.
"You can put me in the second-guess club now if you want, but I will always keep my opinion to myself," Hazzle said. "Coaching basketball was a wonderful occupation. It was very good to my family and me. We had an incredible run. I kept trying to walk away. Eventually, the timing was right. Things are in very good hands."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter