Since arriving in Macon to take over as the Central girls basketball coach, head coach Sheila Toombs has had 11 years to mold her program in to top-5 team and playoff contender.
After a season that saw Central win its first-ever region title (4-AAA) and its first-ever playoff games before losing to eventual champion Beach by one point in the quarterfinals, the Lady Chargers are poised for yet another playoff run. But for Central and its hopefuls, the goal of a playoff run was a far-away thought not too long ago.
“When I got here they weren’t winning anything," Toombs said. "I had an assistant coach who came to me a few years (from another program in the area), and she was telling me that when they would come to play Central, it was like a practice game. They knew they were going to beat Central. The starters knew they weren’t going to play much, that kind of thing. They were the beating goat.”
Toombs’ deep well of coaching experience brought a change to the program. Coming from Troy University, where she played basketball, Toombs took a coaching job at Manchester and stayed there for 19 seasons. Twiggs County then came calling, and she coached there for three seasons before arriving in Macon in 2006.
She molded the program by changing attitudes, execution and focus.
“For me, it had to be hard work, integrity and a sense of pride,” she said. “There is a standard that we hold them to. I learned this: A lot of kids who were probably supposed to be going to Central were going to other schools. But the first thing was, we had to get the respect. Because there was no respect for Central, within Central, anything like that. But they were hopeful.”
That hope, and the fact that a group of girls coming from the local middle school had played together since sixth grade, allowed the Central program to blossom. But it took some time.
“I always prided myself in just, whatever I get, that’s what I was supposed to have,” Toombs said. “Going and getting players from somewhere else? No. Coach what I get. All of my girls came from Miller Magnet School. So the bulk of my girls came from my feeder school.”
Three years ago, Toombs inherited a group of freshman girls -- Jada Clowers, Tyleia Williams, JeNya Wilder, ReNesha Goolsby, Zaren Harris -- who would help turn the program into the power it has become.
“All of those girls came from Miller," Toombs said. "From ReNesha, Tyleia, JeNya and Zaren ... those came from Miller. All of the girls are seniors besides Nakayia Greene. She is a junior. They have all been playing together forever."
Through the years, the Lady Chargers have had to fight through injuries and growing pains in the process of moving from a perennial-beater school to contenders. Injuries and overcoming confidence issues became an uphill battle.
“ReNesha didn’t play last year," Toombs said. "She tore her ACL in a softball game, so she didn’t play at all her junior year. But they’re still working on believing in themselves that they can go to college. They can play basketball there. It was a goal of theirs, coming from Miller. But we’ve had our ups and downs, just like a family would. Some hurt feelings here and there, but they pushed through those kinds of things.”
This year, the Lady Chargers, ranked fifth in Class AAA, have compiled a 15-2 record and have gone unbeaten through seven region games.
Clowers, a 6-foot-1 power forward, leads the Lady Chargers in scoring with 15 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks per game.
“Jada is a work in progress,” coach said. “Last year, she really started to understand and believe in herself and her abilities. Still working on her with her mental side of things, being locked in, those kinds of things. She hangs around the basket, works hard down low and rebounds and blocks shots.”
Williams adds 12.2 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals per game. Wilder is averaging 11 points, eight rebounds, six steals and two assists per game. Goolsby has been good for 9.3 points, 2.5 rebounds and two assists per game.
As the season moves toward the playoffs, the Central girls team will be in the heart of the state, focused on this year, while feeling the sting of last year’s playoff defeat. But the pain is welcome. It’s a driving force behind the team that Central puts on the floor.
The "locked in" mentality keeps hopes alive for a strong showing at the end of the season.
“The bottom line, these are teen-age kids,” Toombs said. “We are trying to get them to stay focused on the little things and not being distracted by the other things that come along the way. Keeping them locked in is what we do. It’s the phrase we have been thinking about, staying locked in Bring your energy; take it to the next level. Those kinds of things we are focusing on. They understand that it’ll take as much work as it did last year. These girls need to know that there are other teams looking at us and seeing where we were and how we were standing. They’re looking to see if we are going to work just as hard as we did, because we know they are.”