CHATSWORTH, Ga. - The situation could have been volatile. A basketball team with seven seniors loses its coach just before the start of school and a coach hired for football takes over.
A strong corps of seniors at four-year-old North Murray High School was ready to take off after a 21-win 2011-12 season. However, when coach Eric Bishop took an administrative job with Whitfield County Schools, the Mountaineers were left without a coach.
Enter Tim Ellis, a former Dade County player and assistant coach and head coach at Southeast Whitfield. Athletic director Roger Rainey knew of Ellis' background and, with no new teaching positions open, didn't hesitate to ask him to take over.
The team is 14-1 -- the only loss was early to a Class AAAAAA school -- with a top-10 ranking in Georgia Class AAA. The transition was not as seamless as it seems as Ellis, sensing the potential of his new team, demanded more in summer workouts.
"I knew we had some experience and a lot of talent, but they hadn't had a lot of direction in what we wanted to do," Ellis said. "I'm a big believer in playing tight, man-to-man, half-court defense, which was a big change for them. But they bought into it, and now it's what we hang our hats on."
In an age where the game has gravitated more and more to run-and-gun, Ellis' Mountaineers are extremely old-school. They run a traditional post-oriented half-court offense that takes advantage of center Zach Vess.
"Zach's one of the best players in the area, a very high-motor kid who is very physical," Ellis said of his 6-foot-5 senior who averages 21 points and 15 rebounds. "Teams have to stop him, but then again, he's hard to stop. If they do, we can kick it out and get a good shot."
Vess is joined in the starting lineup by a pair of athletic 6-3 forwards in Brady Swilling (10 points, eight rebounds) and Austin Horn (11.6 points) and guards Drew Mosteller and Zach Sanford. All are seniors and have bought into the more physical style of play.
"We hadn't focused much on defense before, but Coach Ellis convinced us that to get the most out of our senior year we had to give more effort on that end," said Vess, who is being recruited by several elite academic schools such as Berry College and Sewanee. "We also have better chemistry, which is a big thing for a group that's been playing together since we were little."
The Mountaineers are allowing only 44 points a game and only twice have given up more than 60. They're coming off a Region 5-AAA 34-point win over Ringgold in which the Tigers managed only 24 points. They have won two tournaments and own impressive wins over AAAA playoff teams Dalton and Gilmer County.
It's an impressive resume, but one Ellis hopes doesn't satisfy the players.
"We still need to take steps in our half-court offense," he said. "We tend to let teams lull us to sleep, and when we face teams for a second time they're going to change the way they play us. We have to be prepared for that.
"We also have to be aware that, with our record, we've got a target on our backs now and teams can make their season by beating us. That's respect, but I've told the guys they've earned it with hard work."