PAGLIA: Atkins, Union Grove thriving again

Brian Paglia, bpaglia@henryherald.com

Brian Paglia, bpaglia@henryherald.com

Last season was new to Russ Atkins. Fifteen years at Stockbridge and just one losing season started to paint Atkins’ perception of what high school basketball programs should be. Only now, looking back on Union Grove’s 1-20 season a year ago, can Atkins make sense of how far the Wolverines fell.

“Maybe it was a learning lesson for all of us,” Atkins said.

Indeed, Atkins and the Wolverines learned just how fragile the average prep hoops program can be. A few players graduate, another’s family moves, another transfers, and suddenly you’re left with a roster that’s almost unrecognizable.

It’s the not-so-simple explanation for how Union Grove went from 14-11, region 3-AAAA runner-up and state playoff team in 2010-11 to, by record, the worst team in Henry County a year later.

Yes, the Wolverines were going to miss the graduation of Tracy Ham and Jordan Nelson. But Atkins knew he could rely on Charles Mann, arguably the best talent to ever come through the program, and Sean Williams, a guard unfazed by any situation despite his diminuitive stature.

Then came the news that Mann would transfer to Milton seeking the opportunity to play for a state championship (which he did) and getting better prepared for his future at Georgia (where he’s the starting point guard).

Soon after came the news that Williams’ had to go, too. His mother’s job said she couldn’t work from home anymore, so the bags were packed for Las Vegas.

Union Grove and Atkins were left with a roster full of what could only be described as role players.

With Mann and Williams, Union Grove would not have gone 1-20.

But it did.

“We had a group of role players without Charles and Sean who were expected to be the leaders and scorers,” Atkins said. “And with those role players, we’d of been fine. But being left with just a bunch of role players, we struggled scoring.”

Then another surprise came for Atkins.

As the Wolverines slogged through December and January, as the pile of losses began to mount, he started to realize something — he liked this team.

“That group was fun to be around,” Atkins said. “They worked their tail off. They just weren’t as good as the teams we played on a night-in, night-out basis.

“Obviously, winning makes you feel good, but really and truly at no point last year did I get to the point where I was so unhappy or depressed. Those kids worked their tail off, got better and that’s all you can ask for.”

Now, here is Union Grove at 12-6 overall, 5-3 in Region 4-AAAAA, 2-1 in its sub-region and starting to resemble the Wolverines of two years ago. Those sophomores of Grayson Fuller, Caleb Ham, J.P. Plummer and Jay Shorts are a year older, juniors with more skill and better court savvy. Williams is back to provide experience and leadership and 16.4 points per game.

Somehow, just as mysteriously as they disappeared in one year, the Wolverines are back.

Brian Paglia covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald newspapers. He can be reached at bpaglia@henryherald.com. On Twitter? Follow him @BrianPaglia.