Cotton Jr. returns to Americus tonight to face former team, old friend

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

AMERICUS -- Americus-Sumter boys basketball coach Michael Coley faces his mentor tonight.

Trying to get Coley to talk about the matchup with Robert Cotton Jr., however, was a little difficult.

After all, he's just trying to take things one game at a time.

"Our next game is against Terrell County on Friday," Coley said earlier this week of the contest his boys lost Friday evening, 68-53. "Terrell County has a great team."

Good try, coach, but it's hard to downplay the significance of tonight's game. That's because while serving the past four years as an assistant under Cotton at Americus-Sumter, Coley is now the Panthers' head coach. Meanwhile, Cotton is at Crisp County trying to resurrect a program that lost its luster after Lewis Clinch graduated and moved on to Georgia Tech.

Coley, therefore, said the most

important thing he remembers from Cotton is focusing on the game at hand -- and not to look ahead.

Instead, just as Cotton always preached to Coley, Coley wanted to talk about the opponent his team was to face on Friday -- Terrell County.

Yet, before long, he finally was talking about Cotton, who went 65-42 during his four years as Americus-Sumter's head coach and took the Panthers to the Sweet 16 his first season (2005-06).

"It's been in the back of my mind," Coley said. "I learned so much from him as a coach. It's the student vs. the teacher."

Cotton, who watched his former team's 44-42 win against Macon County last Saturday, is also finally in the mode to talk about tonight's matchup.

"It's going to be really exciting," said Cotton, who recommended that Coley replace him as the Panthers' coach and was 1-1 at Crisp before Friday's game at Valdosta. "I snuck in on them last Saturday, and they played really well. They have not missed a beat since I've left them. They will be highly motivated, I do know that. I don't know how I can get my guys motivated. I don't know which team will be motivated the most."

Cotton added that it's hard to say which team has the advantage tonight.

"I know what they can do, but then again it's scary because they know what I do coaching-wise," Cotton said.

And that, according to Cotton's former players, is emphasizing a high-pressure defense. Knowing that will be something the Panthers hope to take advantage of tonight.

"We do know his defense," said the Panthers' James Burton, who scored eight points in the win against Dougherty on Tuesday. "He does not like to do zone, it'll probably be a man-to-man defense."

Panthers teammate Deonte Fulks, who scored 11 against Dougherty, is not sure how he'll react with Cotton being on the opposite bench.

"It will maybe be awkward at first," Fulks said. "But after the first few minutes, it will be just like any other game to us."

While Coley credited

Cotton with his game-by-game approach, Cotton also had plenty of praise for his former student.

"He's really dependable and very fun and disciplined," Cotton said. "He knows the game and catches on quick. With him being my top assistant the past four years, he could see things that were vital to the game plan."

For Cotton, tonight's game plan will be important in more ways than one.

"No teacher wants to get beat by his pupil," Cotton laughed.