MARIANNA — Travis Blanton debated stepping away from coaching.
His heart, his faith, his family and friends and his team swayed him to stay. Now he’s witnessing one of his more special seasons.
The Marianna Bulldogs are realizing the potential that sprouted last season. Blanton and area boys basketball aficionados agreed that Marianna could have success in the near future if it continued to grow. That success has happened quickly with the Bulldogs at 20-1 with eyes on a perfect District 1-4A record.
It’s a stark contrast to 2012-13, a season that saw Marianna finish third in a three-team district and miss the regional tournament. It snapped a streak of nine consecutive regional appearances, but the Bulldogs are on the cusp of starting a new string in a matter of days.
Blanton wasn’t sure if he’d be around to witness the turnaround, at least not from the sideline. He turns 47 later this month and admitted the years in coaching were beginning to wear on him. He considered moving into an administrative position at the school.
He sought counsel from his family and looked to religion to help guide his decision. He said the choice became clear. He needed to remain on the bench.
“I prayed about it and God wanted me back, this is where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “This group of kids made the decision easier. I looked at the group of kids and what made me happy and this is where God wants me.”
Blanton, who guided Marianna to back to back Class 3A state semifinal appearances in 2008 and 2009, has a team that’s not only built to contend in Class 4A this season but one that could challenge for seasons to come. The Bulldogs have only two seniors, Tommy White and Roderick Coleman, the latter a forward Blanton described as “the horse that pulls the wagon.”
“He’s kind of the gentle giant,” Blanton said of the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Coleman. “He’s quiet, leads by example with hustle and grit. He brings a lot of intangibles to the game.”
Standout juniors are guards Shaquarious Baker and Jamel Johnson. Sophomores Herman Williams and Trey Clemons also are heavy contributors. Clemons already is 6-6 and Williams is a 6-2 forward.
Blanton couldn’t list his top scorer when probed without statistics in hand. He said that’s a bonus as production has been balanced. The team is unselfish, he said, a fact that belies youth in an era dominated by the me-first attitude.
“You could see it, this group of kids has another year of experience and maturity, a willingness to work and a great work ethic,” Blanton said. “This has really been an outstanding year to be a part of.
“I felt we’d have a good year. It’s been over and beyond what the expectations might have been early. This group has seemed to accept every challenge and are a little more mature beyond their years.”
Maturity helped Marianna rebound from its first loss of the season against Rutherford on Saturday. The Rams avenged an earlier loss to the Bulldogs and Blanton said the defeat came at a good time with the district tournament two weeks away. He was curious how his team would respond.
The answer was quite well.
Marianna held Class 1A Graceville to 25 percent shooting in a 67-29 win on Monday, again showing it can be a dominant force on defense. The Bulldogs defeated Class 1A and 20-game winner Malone 64-50 on Tuesday.
Marianna still needs to contend with its district opponents. Advancing to regionals itself is a chore and that’s before potential matchups against East Gadsden, which reached last year’s state semis, and perennially talented Tallahassee Godby.
“If you’re fortunate to get out everybody is good at that point,” Blanton said. “Their reputation doesn’t surprise you.”
Blanton stopped short of comparing this team to his past squads. He said it was too early to decide the current Bulldogs’ legacy. He was confident the team he came back for could rank highly when it’s finished.
“We haven’t accomplished what they have, haven’t accomplished things when it really matters,” Blanton said. “All we want to do is win in February. Hopefully we’ll be able to.”