By JOEL COLEMAN
In the ever-changing world of high school basketball, perhaps the only thing harder than attaining success is maintaining it.
No one knows that better than The Starkville Daily News' All-Area Boys Coach of the Year Greg Carter.
A season after Carter guided his Starkville High Yellowjackets to the mountaintop of Mississippi prep hoops with a 31-2 record, a Class 6A title and a Grand Slam championship, the SHS leader was saddled with the task of trying to rekindle the magic again in 2010-11.
It was a challenge that Carter understood from the start wouldn't be easy.
"It seems like every year I look back on the team we had the year before and I miss a certain aspect or element of it," said Carter. "That state championship team just had every position covered and we had depth. There were times all year long where we'd take guys out or lose guys and we'd just plug someone else in and they'd fill that role as well as the guy they were replacing. That was just a special team. That type of team will spoil you."
This season, things seemingly didn't come as easy for Carter or his Jackets. With last year's dynamic duo of Edward Townsel and Rashad Perkins gone, as well as senior Jaquez Johnson out all year with a shoulder injury that he originally suffered during football season, many of the players who in the past had played supporting roles under Carter were thrust into the spotlight.
While junior Gavin Ware was back to anchor his center position this year, Jacolby Mobley, Mike Brand, Steven Brand and Tory Rice all became go-to guys for the Jackets throughout the campaign.
The result was a team that sported a totally different dynamic than the group Carter had led the year before.
"(The state title team) was good enough to just go out, run up and down the floor and still have a chance to beat people by just playing at a fast pace," said Carter. "We couldn't play at the same pace this year as we did the year before. We had to slow it down a little bit and become more of a grind-it-out type of team. We'd have to wear teams down over the course of a game."
It wasn't without struggle at times, but SHS adapted to its new style of play. Throughout the process, everyone, even Carter, had to adjust.
"We had to be more patient," said Carter. "You're not going to just go out there and, in the first quarter, be blowing teams out and winning by 20 or 25. You have to win over the course of four quarters rather than winning over the first few minutes."
Under the tutelage of their veteran coach, the Jackets finished 19-9 and once again reached the Class 6A State Tournament before ultimately being eliminated by Meridian in the semifinals.
That Meridian team would go on to to claim the state championship, just one year after falling in the title game to Carter and company.
In fact, the Wildcats accounted for two of the Jackets' losses in 2010-11, as Starkville fell to Meridian 71-59 in the regular season before losing in the postseason 72-43.
While he and his team came up two wins short of another state crown, Carter was able to find a silver lining, based largely around the team that had eliminated him.
As Carter left the Mississippi Coliseum earlier this month following the tournament loss to the Wildcats, the SHS coach indicated that his team, which will largely be intact next season, has the chance to duplicate Meridian's achievements.
"The thing about last year's Meridian team as compared to this year's Meridian team is that they improved," said Carter. "Each and every one of those Meridian players got better from last year to this year. It's on us to do the same thing. We have to improve as players. Each individual player has to make some improvement during the offseason in preparation for next year in order to get us to where we want to be."
As promising as it sounds, Carter knows it will take a commitment from his team to put Starkville back on top.
"A lot is on each kid," said Carter. "Getting better as a player isn't something that happens overnight. It takes time. You've got to be patient, but you've got to keep working."
Judging by recent history, the Jackets have just the man at the helm to ensure they stay on track.
If they do, another state title run isn't out of the question, nor is what would be Carter's third straight SDN All-Area Coach of the Year award.
Regardless of what goes down in the months to come, there is one certainty.
Carter, as he always has, will point the credit elsewhere.
"You can't be a Coach of the Year without pretty good players," said Carter. "I thought we had really good players this year and that helped a lot. Also, there's my assistant coach, Ryan Rodriguez. He does a great job of helping this team and all the players get to where we want to be."