Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- Archie Chapmon doesn't like this year's Albany High boys basketball team.

"I love 'em,'' Chatmon said. "I really do. After last year the way I felt, I was starting to count the years before I retired. But this team makes me want to coach, makes me want to keep coaching. They're buying into the defense. I haven't had this much fun in a long time.''

Just call Chatmon young at heart.

Too much youth on the court usually ages coaches, but not at Albany High, where Chatmon has been revitalized by one of his youngest teams. They don't just play basketball, they play Chatmonball.

"The last few years I've been coaching somebody else's game -- the game they (the kids on the team) brought to the gym. It's nice to be able to coach my kind of game,'' said Chatmon, who has been at Albany High for 26 years. "This is a fun group. They play my kind of basketball. It's easy when you are working hard and they come with you. I love this team."

Chatmon then added: "I haven't been able to do this in a long time, to have a team respond the way this one has. When you respond like they have and work like they work, win or lose I've already won. But it's nice to get the W's.''

The W's have been piling up for the Indians, who have won four in a row and eight of their last 10 -- a stretch that has turned Albany around and given the Indians sole possession of second place in the Region 1-AA race behind Thomasville.

"Believe it or not, it's as simple as them believing in what we're trying to do,'' said Chatmon, who preaches defense, defense and more defense. "If you have two guys giving 40 percent, it hurts the whole team. But we've got 15 guys (12 who play), and everyone is giving it their all on the defensive end.

"Our weakness is we're not scoring a lot, but our defense keeps us in games, and then we can win in the fourth quarter. We know what we are going to score so we know what we have to keep them under that figure.''

Something else has happened to the Indians.

"Confidence,'' said Chatmon, who does not let his players talk to the media -- a rule he's had ever since he became a head coach. "In this run I've seen it in individuals and I've seen it in the overall play. We're getting to the point where they expect to win. We're not all the way there yet, but getting closer.''

Just in time.

Albany is about to face its toughest stretch of the season, a three-game gauntlet that Chatmon calls "Murderer's Row." It starts tonight in the Albany gym against region rival Mitchell County, then heats up even more Saturday night when city rival Dougherty comes across the river for what is always one of the top games of the season, and continues Tuesday when the Indians travel to face the state power Bulldogs, who are also the No. 7-ranked Class AA team in the state, according to the most recent Georgia prep poll released Thursday.

Mitchell County (11-6, 5-3 in Region 1-AA) is in third place behind Albany (8-2) in the region, so there's plenty at stake.

"It's a big, big game,'' Mitchell County coach Kenneth Harris said. "We need this. We still have a chance to force a tie for second place, but we've got to win this game.''

Then there's that first meeting between the two rivals, the one in which Mitchell County jumped out to a 28-1 lead before Albany stormed back and ended up losing by one point.

It was a game in which Chatmon saw his kids grow up in front of him.

"They're young, and it was their first time in the (Mitchell County) gym, and they were in a state of shock,'' Chatmon said. "Once we got over the initial shock, we realized we could play with them.

"It's always a big game with them, and you know what you have to do. Having a game plan for (Mitchell County) is the easiest game plan you will ever have. They are going to try to force turnovers and they are going to shoot the ball, and shoot 3s. The game plan is simple: Take care of the basketball and get a hand in their face when they shoot.''

One more thing.

"We have to come out ready,'' Chatmon said. "We can't spot them a 28-1 lead'.'

The trick is not to overlook Mitchell, because Saturday night is Dougherty night -- an ageless city rivalry game that comes complete with bragging rights, enough hype to fill the Flint River and a standing-room only crowd.

"It will be crazy,'' Chatmon said. "That's home. We live in the same neighborhood. We all know each other. We see each other at Burger King. This rivalry has been going on a long, long time. If I have to give a speech before this game, we're in trouble. If I have to give a speech before any of these three games, we're in trouble.''

Chatmon already has inspired his young team. No one thought the Indians would have this kind of season. Seven players left the program last summer -- many of them suddenly transferring to other schools -- and the only hope was to put an inexperienced team on the floor and then hope some more.

It worked. The Indians have won with a team in which 10 of the 15 players are either freshmen or sophomores. Three sophomores (guards Tim Pierce and Larry Sanford and center Roscoe Byrd) and a freshmen (wing Tyrone Culbreth) start along with senior Jarvis Hicks. Pierce is averaging 11 points, and Sanford and Culbreth are averaging 10.

And everyone is playing all-out defense.

That's why Albany is winning -- because Chatmonball is working.

"I'm having a blast,'' he said. "We just need to get better on offense. If we do, we could have a chance to do something. Who knows? By tournament time, we might be ready to do something.''