ABERDEEN — With his team mired in a three-game losing streak, Aberdeen High School first-year boys basketball coach Jaworski Rankin broke out a visual aid.
“We printed out a picture of the (Mississippi) Coliseum and put it in each player’s locker,” Rankin said. “Sometimes, you can get lost during a basketball season. We just wanted the players to take a chance to visualize our goals.
“Even though we had lost some games, there was still plenty of reason to be optimistic and to keep playing.”
After handing out the photo, Rankin met with his players the next day in the library. Players were encouraged to discuss the strengths of the team and to give reasons why the team could get to Jackson.
The chat session and visual aid helped.
Aberdeen cruised to the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 3A, Region 4 championship. The Bulldogs wound up with a six-game postseason winning streak that ended with a 76-38 loss to Velma Jackson in the championship game of the Class 3A state tournament.
It was Aberdeen’s first trip to Jackson since 2012.
For his team’s success, Rankin is The Dispatch’s Small Schools All-Area Boys Basketball Coach of the Year. In 2014, Rankin led Grenada to the Class 6A state championship game.
“We had a tremendous season,” Rankin said. “For these young men to believe in what we were trying to do was special. There were a lot of times when this wasn’t easy. In the end, we put it together and had a great year. That was until we ran into one of the best teams this state has had a while in Velma Jackson.”
During the past summer, Rankin took one of the best basketball jobs in the state. At the same time, he took over one of the most difficult ones.
Roy Hazzle coached Aberdeen for better than three decades. The school’s gymnasium is named in his honor. Hazzle twice retired before leaving the sidelines for good after the 2012-13 season. Longtime assistant Cornelius Gilleylen then coached the team for one season, but he wasn’t retained.
With the school district in conservatorship status, the future of the tradition-rich basketball program was shaky at best. However, there were enough positives for Rankin to leave Grenada to take over at Aberdeen.
“I have really enjoyed this,” Rankin said. “It is amazing what goes on here. I really didn’t get a chance to enjoy the season until the year was over. You are so goal oriented. My focus was totally on getting the team to Jackson. It is rewarding when a group of kids fight this hard to keep a legacy going.
“The expectations are always high here. You can’t be mediocre. A lot of coaches battle this same thing. You just can’t be mediocre in this business. You have to show the players love and guidance. You have to push them towards excellence. It’s been a blessing to be here. You want to coach where there are high expectations.”
The transition wasn’t easy for players who were playing for their third head coach in as many seasons.
“There were some really tough times,” Aberdeen junior guard Queshod Young said. “It’s not one system being right or one system being wrong. It was just different. We always did things one way and it led to a whole lot of success. I’m not sure we knew what to expect for a long time. It sorted itself out.”
Weeks after taking the job, Rankin was concerned about his team’s performance in a summer tournament play.
“(Starkville coach) Greg Carter told me I had some really great athletes,” Rankin said. “He told me my team was a whole lot better than my last team at Grenada. We were sitting there down 20 one night during the summer and I was having serious doubts.”
Instead of being discouraged, Rankin became determined. His first mission when summer play ended was to sit down with senior guard Marcus Carouthers and his mother. Marcus figured to be the team’s leading scorer and go-to player. If he and the coach weren’t on the same page, the odds of a successful season were going to become long.
“He believed in me, and that really meant a lot to me,” said Carouthers, who averaged 21.1 points per game for the Bulldogs (26-7).
Slowly, things fell in place. Aberdeen still played up-tempo but with more focus to defensive detail. Rebounding went from being encouraged to being required. Carouthers quickly established himself as one of the best scorers in Class 3A. However, additional offensive weapons were needed.
“We had a stretch where we won 12 games in a row and I still don’t think the kids totally believed in what we were doing,” Rankin said. “When we first started, the kids were not receptive. They didn’t know me. I was an outsider to them. It’s hard for kids to trust these days. Establishing the trust was a key to our season. It took a long time.”
Aberdeen played the likes of eventual Class 6A state champion Starkville, Class 5A playoff participant New Hope and had to deal with traditional Class 3A power Kemper County in its region. The Bulldogs played in tournaments at Mississippi State, Itawamba Community College, and Jackson Lanier.
“We played some outstanding teams,” Carouthers said. “It made us better in the long run. Sometimes we got knocked down, but we kept on fighting.”
Aberdeen eventually figured out how to beat full-court pressure — a nemesis early in the season. It also learned how to play with Carouthers in foul trouble. Young learned all of the dimensions of the game to play point guard. Trent Davis, Jartavius Dobbs and Derrell Carouthers better understood their roles.
It all seemed to make sense. Then came the regular-season ending three-game losing streak with home losses to Kemper County and New Hope, as well as a road loss at Starkville.
“We did some soul searching,” Ranking said. “We were being outcoached and outplayed. I told the assistants, though, we weren’t going to change. We were going to continue to do things the way we were doing them. We talked out our differences. We had come too far to give up.
“It’s a testament to the kids they kept believing at a difficult time.”
Two of five starters figure to return for Rankin’s second season, which should be a little easier given the progress and the stability the program achieved this past season.
“I tell coach Hazzle all the time he had the easiest job in the world,” Rankin said. “His job was easy because he didn’t have to follow coach Hazzle.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.