The quest for perfection: Smoky Mountain basketball team heads into playoffs 24-0
There is no “I” in team for Jimmy Cleaveland.
“Listen, I don’t know where you’re going with this story,” he modestly said. “But, I sure don’t want this about me. I want it to be about these kids, for sure.”
Head varsity basketball coach for Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva, Cleaveland is the leader of the undefeated Mustangs. The team is ripe with talent, where teenage boys are learning the fundamentals of what it takes to succeed, on the court and off.
“It’s been a great season. We’ve got a great bunch of kids, hard workers,” Cleaveland said. “They’re fun to be around, they get after each other in practice. We’ve got experienced players, the kind of group where they understand their roles and true meaning of being a team. They push each other, they rely on each other.”
Coming into the WNCAC Championship Game on Feb. 20 against Brevard, Smoky Mountain was 23-0 for the season. Cleaveland attributes the team’s winning streak to a keen sense of defense and camaraderie.
“My philosophy is we’re going to start with the defensive end and work around from there, try to make them score off of their defense,” he said. “We have to make sure we do the little things. If you play defense and shoot well, with those two things right, you’ve got a chance to win.”
Within hours of the Brevard contest, Cleaveland was ready to take the court.
“Hopefully we play well and have what it takes to win,” he said. “We’re 23-0, now let’s go for 24.”
This year isn’t Cleaveland’s first run at perfection. In 2004-05, he led Pisgah High School in Canton to an undefeated season that resulted in a state championship. In 2010-11, his Smoky Mountain team had a perfect season but finished 27-1 when it lost to East Rutherford in the sectional finals. East Rutherford eventually won the state title that year.
“I’m going to be honest with you, I can’t enjoy winning. I just always worry about the next one,” Cleaveland said. “You can’t live in the past much. You’ve got to learn from things, but you’ve got to look ahead at what’s your next opponent.”
On top of being the head coach, Cleaveland is also an assistant principal at Smoky Mountain.
“If you can coach, you can teach, and if you can teach, you can coach,” he said. “You’re dealing with young people and you’ve got to have a love for that, whether it be in the classroom or on the field.”
Cleaveland also points to the school itself as part of his success.
“I’ve been blessed with real good kids, and talented kids,” he said. “The people around me, great assistant coaches, it takes so much. I’ve been lucky to be at great schools that are supportive of athletics.”
Tipoff to glory
The clock strikes 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 20. The gymnasium of Smoky Mountain High School is filled with anxious parents, relatives, fans, cheerleaders, players and coaches. Standing courtside is Smoky Mountain Athletic Director David Napert.
“It’s a unique group of young men who all play well together,” he said. “They’ve matured a lot, and they have a winning attitude. This isn’t the first time our basketball team has done well either — we’ve been working at it for years.
So, what does 23 straight wins mean to the school?
“It means a lot to us and to the whole community,” Napert said. “This whole year for athletics has been great for the school. There’s been a lot of enthusiasm across the board for athletics here.”
Further down the sideline, Smoky Mountain Principal Jake Buchanan is all smiles.
“It’s a good time to be a Mustang,” he said. “We have very high expectations and are very excited for finishing up the season. Our kids have dedicated themselves to a common goal of working together, and they’ve worked very hard.”
The referee stands midcourt and tosses up the ball between the two teams. Smoky Mountain grabs possession and never looked back. Immediately, the home team scored a three-pointer, then another, then another, then two more. The scoreboard reads 15-0 before most people in the stands have even found their seat. Each time Brevard brings the ball down the court, Smoky Mountain’s defense takes it away like a kid stealing your lunch money — fast and with authority.
“It’s 15-0, and their best player hasn’t even scored yet,” a Smoky Mountain fan comments from the first row.
By the time Brevard finally gets on the scoreboard, it’s already 21-2. Smoky Mountain proved relentless throughout the first half of the game. It’s a “rock’em, sock’em” defensive energy for Smoky Mountain.
Add that to Smoky Mountain’s great offensive rebounding and made free throws, and you can see why the score was 55-17 with the last remaining moments ticking away in the second quarter. And just as Brevard figured it was over, for at least the first half, Smoky Mountain junior Cal Raleigh tosses up a three-point buzzer beater, making it 58-17 as the teams headed for the locker room.
“We’re too fast for them — that’s it. Speed makes this team special,” said Cal’s grandfather Randy Dietz, heading to the lobby for a breather. “[Cleaveland] is a great coach with great ballplayers. We’re all proud of them, and I hope we do better. I hope we see them play at state.”
Bringing it home
The second half doesn’t fare much better for Brevard. Smoky Mountain pulls even further ahead, but this time with more focus on their in-the-paint moves, where proper passing and layup execution are vital to putting it in the hoop.
And each time a timeout is called, Cleaveland is still on his toes, only to demand the same urgency from his players. A howl can be heard from inside the team huddle as Cleaveland instructs his team to not get lazy, not lose focus on bettering their plays. He’s a coach on a mission, which is to get the most out of the boys he believes the most in.
“He’s definitely strict on them, but he gets his point across,” said Smoky Mountain senior cheerleader Maryssa Belcher. “He pushes them to do their best.”
“First and foremost, [Coach Cleaveland] cares about his kids,” Buchanan added. “He builds a relationships with his kids, he demands the best out of them and they give it to him because they believe in him.”
The clock soon reads 00:00. The game is over, with Smoky Mountain victorious as the scoreboard reads 103-55. Cheers erupt on the home team side. Conference trophies are then brought to the court to be awarded to Smoky Mountain for its incredible regular season.
Smoky Mountain senior guard Zachariah Carter felt great about the victory.
“Our team has a special bond. We played as a team together, came together on defense and pushed the tempo,” he said. “It’s good to look at it right now that we have a perfect season, but now we’ve got to look past that and keep going.”
Carter’s teammate, senior guard Jordan Couch, had similar sentiments.
“We have zero wins and zero losses once the playoffs start,” he said. “So, hopefully, we can get six more wins.”
And as the car engines in the parking lot crank up, with victorious fans heading home in every direction, Cleaveland is happy about winning the conference title, but he’s already preparing for state.
“We got off to a great start tonight and they played well,” he said. “And that’s what we’re trying teach, which is that it’s a 32-minute game no matter what — you’ve got to keep doing your thing.”
With their record now 24-0 heading into the playoffs, Cleaveland isn’t satisfied.
“Now, if you don’t perform, it’s over, and we’re excited for the playoffs,” he said. “Right now, we’re just looking for 25.”