SYLACAUGA -- Sylacauga High School boys basketball coach Will Copeland will have a second attempt to advance past the Class 5A Final Four semifinals -- this time against rival Talladega at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
Copeland led Sylacauga to the Final Four a year ago, but the Aggies fell in an 80-59 loss to Mae Jemison-Huntsville.
“It was a good experience for us, and we gained a lot of experience,” he said. “It was a good moment for us, but obviously when you’re a competitive team, you’re disappointed in coaching whether you lose to the eventual state champ or whoever -- you’re still upset about losing.”
He said his experienced group of seniors showed they’ve learned from the loss with their performances in regional play, a 51-50 victory over Booker T. Washington and a 70-65 win against Calera for the 5A Central Regional championship.
“I thought in the regional final, it really showed, and I thought in the first game, when we got down, the guys didn’t flinch,” Copeland said. “The guys didn’t panic. We didn’t have to go in the huddle and say, ‘Listen.’ It was just, ‘Hey, let’s keep playing. Let’s keep going.’ We weren’t even talking about losing. We were drawing up plays and talking about what we were running. We were talking about getting stops. We weren’t talking about the end. These guys, they stay poised.”
The difference between last season’s group and this season’s group, Copeland said, is hard work.
“Sometimes, you don’t see that when you’re around it every day,” he said, “but when you’re making Final Four appearances, it shows you the work we’re doing in July and the running you do, it pays off.”
Copeland’s previous coaching experience came at Fort Payne, but the teams couldn’t make it past regional play.
“We had to play Lee-Huntsville one year, and the other year, we had to play Parker,” he said. “It was Parker when they had Eric Bledsoe, and Lee-Huntsville was always good. Fort Payne was very competitive, but once we got to regionals, we struggled. We didn’t struggle with Lee. We had a chance to beat them, but Parker beat us by 20.”
Copeland said assistant coach Joel Jones has been a key part of the team’s success.
“I’ve always heard somewhere before that you always try to get people to work for you that are smarter than you are,” Copeland said. “When it comes to basketball, Coach Jones has a lot of wisdom. He has a lot of experience, and sometimes, you just have to look at that and realize that. If you’ve got a chance to hire someone like that, to me, it’s a no-brainer to get somebody in there who’s experienced, from Sylacauga and knows Sylacauga.
“I think we work really well together. Our personalities, I sometimes explode at different times, and that’s not good. He’s more of a steady, always fired-up -- that’s great. I’ll hold it in too much sometimes. It’s been great working with him and drawing from his experiences. I was an assistant for eight years, and I know how important it is to talk to the head coach and do your part. Coach Jones does an excellent job of that.”
Jones, who played point guard for Sylacauga from 1974-1978, got his start in coaching in 1979 as a volunteer assistant under a learning tree of a legendary pair of Aggies coaches, Justin Martin and Gerald Douglass.
“We had a Final Four appearance with Douglass,” Jones said. “His team played in the championship game and lost in 1982.”
In 1982, Jones transitioned to officiating basketball at the high school level, where he worked for 19 years before rejoining the Aggies as an assistant coach in 2002.
Since 2002, Jones has worked under Aggies coaches David Ball, Scott Golden, Derrick Crawford and Copeland. Golden’s 2011 team made a Final Four appearance as did Copeland’s boys in 2017 and Crawford’s girls in 2014 and 2017.
“In 2014, we had the all-state player, Shakayla Thomas, and we played in the state finals that year,” Jones said. “We lost the game to Wenonah. In 2017, we lost in the (Final Four). Coach Copeland and I made an appearance last year, and lost in the (Final Four).”
Jones said he’s blessed to be a part of another Aggies Final Four run.
“We’re blessed to be back this year, which makes it back-to-back,” he said. “I feel real good about how the kids are working, and I feel great about how the coaches are working.
“To get this opportunity to coach with a guy like Coach Copeland has been so easy. He’s such a humble guy, and he’s so easy to work with. Sometimes, I think I overstep my boundaries, but he takes it in stride. If he’s got something to say to me, he’ll say it in the right way and we move on.”
Jones said he sees Copeland as more of the even-keeled one, while he’s the one expressing the emotions.
“Coach Copeland is such a low-key guy,” he said. “I watch him all the time. Sometimes officials make calls, and I look to see how he’s going to respond. He always responds in a calm manner. Myself, it’s kind of like day and night. If you hear anybody yelling and screaming over there, it’ll be Coach Jones. I think that’s how my high school coach was, and I took on his personality.
“Some people say in this day and time it’s tough to coach like that -- to be a demanding coach. Coach (Copeland) is demanding in his own way, but it’s different from mine. I’ve always found that kids respond. I never had kids that didn’t respond to that coaching style.”
Jones said regardless of how the Final Four plays out, it’s not the end-all, be-all for the duo.
“We’re really happy to have the opportunity to participate in a Final Four tournament,” he said. “We’re one of the top four teams (in 5A) in the state of Alabama. Whether or not we win the state championship is not going to define what we’ve accomplished as coaches or as players. We just love the guys that we get the opportunity to work with from day to day. Not only do we coach them in terms of basketball, but we love them as human beings as well.”