By Jeff Keeling
It wasn’t the state and national championship hardware in Daniel Boone High’s cross country trophy case that most impressed Olympic 1,500 meter silver medalist Leo Manzano during his visit to Gray March 3. Len Jeffers’ and Ray Jones’ coaching reminded him of Karen Naumann, a middle school coach in Marble Falls, Texas who knew she could help kids like Manzano realize they could be great on or off the playing field.
Had Manzano stuck around for a few days, he could have seen an example, in ETSU women’s basketball coach Brittney Ezell, of another leader who, in addition to being a winner, is about preparing athletes for life. The character, sacrifice and leadership demonstrated by these coaches matters. They are the kinds of people who help their athletes become the kinds of adults you want as your co-workers, neighbors and leaders.
Manzano could have been describing ETSU’s second-year coach Ezell when he spoke of his impressions of the Boone coaches, who in turn reminded him of Naumann, who is still coaching today.
“What I really loved about Len and Ray is how much they believe in these kids, and I think that’s just so important,” Manzano said. “Having somebody who really and truly believes in you is what pushes you and guides you.”
Manzano’s memory of his first encounters with Naumann, in seventh grade, and his respect for her role in his life, dovetails with the work the local coaches are doing to help mold good people. Belief, perseverance, hard work and a commitment to excellence are the ingredients.
Manzano on Naumann, with whom he still communicates now and then: “She was the first person that really pushed me to run and train and to join the cross country team. After that it was like something happened and I was really able to take off. That’s why I believe that having somebody that truly believes in you is so important.”
Jeffers on his state championship team’s aggressive strategy at the Nike Nationals in Portland in December, where the team wasn’t in the conversation until they hung around in second place until late in the race:
“We were not anybody’s top three or top five pick. We had nothing to lose. It was just one of those things, take a chance, get out and give yourself a little space, and hang on for the best that you could do in the last race of the season.”
Brittney Ezell after her Lady Bucs had exceeded expectations this season and just taken 17th-ranked UT-Chattanooga to the wire with a furious comeback before falling in the Southern Conference Championship final Sunday: “There’s not a combination of 26 letters in the alphabet to tell you how proud I am of these kids.”
“Looking in their eyes, I don’t think they ever doubted, and I think they get that from me and my coaching staff. We don’t let them doubt. They know that … we’re behind them 100 percent, and they know that if they lay it all out on the line, it’s not the critic that counts. It’s that kid out there who’s busting her tail for her university.”
Len Jeffers, Ray Jones and Brittney Ezell all want to win – of that there’s no doubt. Nor is a fierce desire to win inherently at odds with a commitment to helping young people develop strong character. I submit the two things are key ingredients in molding strong servant leaders. Throw in the life opportunities these coaches help their athletes attain, and in my book you have people worthy of respect, admiration and, whether in teaching athletics or another discipline, emulation.
Whether Daniel Boone collects another state title anytime soon, or gets the chance for another magical, all-expenses-paid trip to the Nike Nationals, means less than this: Most varsity runners who’ve come through the program in the past several years have earned college scholarships – and had the grades to use them.
Jeffers and his essential, unpaid assistant Ray Jones are liable to continue that trend no matter how much hardware they may bring back from state. Some of those boys may not have considered college were it not for their involvement with cross country. Manzano can relate.
“It is very heartwarming, because that hits close to home for me,” he said. “That’s kind of how I grew up, and because of running and because I was given an opportunity, I was able to take advantage of all these great things, from my college education at the University of Texas to being a two-time Olympian.”
I’ve never met Ezell. But I’ve followed her team as they have come together, won nearly every game they were expected to win and several that they weren’t, and shown poise and mental toughness.
Then I listened to them come back Sunday and nearly knock off one of the best mid-major programs in women’s basketball, and the mental toughness was obvious. Listening to Ezell’s postgame press conference made it clear: this is a woman who gets it, on and off the court.
Of her players – who wear bracelets that say “Blue Collar, Gold Standard” – Ezell said they play as they’re coached: “There’s no lead that’s insurmountable; there’s no effort that should be spared.”
Down nearly 20 to UTC, they kept fighting and forced overtime before losing. “You’re never in that situation if you quit,” Ezell said. She said she talks to the players all the time about, “being part of who we want them to be in their lives and part of who we want them to be reflecting our program – just keep fighting.
“Just compete in everything that you do, and at the end of the day if it’s not good enough, you gave your best and that’s all anybody will ever ask of you.”
Ezell wants conference championships. She wants NCAA tournament berths, and better yet, tournament wins. If she sticks around at ETSU long enough I reckon she’ll get at least some of those desires fulfilled, but in the meantime she’ll be doing the more important work at which she’s clearly gifted: motivating young women to excel on the court and off it and become adults who give instead of taking.
She’ll help mold people like senior Destiny Mitchell, who overcame two surgeries and a transition from guard to center, where she plays against much larger opponents but still hauled in nearly 10 rebounds per game this season.
“You’d never know the pain she goes through. We have to pull her out of practice sometimes.” Ezell said Mitchell epitomizes the “Blue Collar, Gold Standard” ethos and, “puts on her hard hat every day and goes to work.”
Ezell said she wants to send similar people through her program. “Those are the kind of kids we’re going to continue to recruit, and those are the kinds of kids people in the Tri-Cities area and East Tennessee are really going to appreciate for years to come.”
Len Jeffers, Ray Jones, Brittney Ezell and Karen Naumann, I salute you. Keep up the good work.