The final seconds ticked off the clock. As the Columbus State Lady Cougars congratulated each other on their 62-46 win over Augusta State, coach Jonathan Norton picked up one of his young daughters and gave her a quick hug. He gave her back to his wife Michelle, then strolled across the Lumpkin Center court for a postgame radio interview with Scott Miller.
From there, Norton went inside the locker room for a brief talk with the players, then back to the court to watch the men’s game.
Life is good.
This is Norton’s dream job.
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“This is my alma mater, and this is where I got my start in coaching,” Norton said. “Everybody in the community here — the administration, the faculty, the staff, the boosters — has just welcomed us back with open arms. It’s been a humbling feeling, and a heart-warming feeling, to be so welcomed.”
This is exactly how Norton envisioned things would be returning to his alma mater as head women’s basketball coach, replacing the man who gave him his first break and taught him so much, Jay Sparks. Back in his adopted hometown of Columbus. Back on the CSU campus, where he first walked into Herbert Greene’s office as a college junior and asked if he could help. Back where he helped Sparks lead the Lady Cougars to back-to-back Division II final four berths and, for a time, the No. 1 ranking in the country.
Well, maybe not exactly how he envisioned things. Although Saturday’s win was their 11th overall, the Lady Cougars are accustomed to winning bigger. They had lost four of their previous six games before Saturday.
As perfect a fit as Norton was to replace Sparks, who retired from coaching to concentrate on his duties as athletic director, it has not been completely seamless.
While everyone else in the CSU athletic department knew Norton, the players did not. And, after spending four years at Berry College, Norton didn’t know the players, either.
“He has a whole bunch of Jay Sparks players who were comfortable with me,” Sparks said.
“They’re listening. They’re playing hard,” said Norton. “We have to have better chemistry. Everybody has to know their roles.”
Naturally, a team with seven returning seniors — including one of the best players in Division II, Phebe Smith — is expected to contend for the Peach Belt Conference title.
And they still might. Although time is running out for them to catch Georgia College and Clayton State in the West Division, there’s still the conference tournament.
“When we get in the tournament, I think we have as good a chance as anybody else to win the tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament,” Norton said.
Saturday’s win doesn’t provide much insight. Augusta State has only one win and is winless in the Peach Belt. Somewhat overshadowed by the mismatch is the fact that their biggest shortcoming — free throw shooting — was evident again Saturday. They made as many 3-pointers as they did free throws — five of each — which is not a formula for winning in the postseason.
All but three of their losses have been by single-digit margins, and they’re shooting less than 55 percent from the free-throw line.
“We’ve tried every free-throw drill and game you can think of,” Norton said. “Now, we’re just trying to ignore it. Maybe it’s gotten in their heads.”
Getting the Lady Cougars back to national prominence is his long-term goal, but not his dream. His dream is the one he’s living.
Guerry Clegg, firstname.lastname@example.org