By David Purdum / For the AJC
Van Keys received a phone call from Milton High School principal Cliff Jones on Tuesday night, Oct. 23. The next morning Keys agreed to become the Eagles’ new head boys basketball coach.
He knew the challenge he was facing.
Milton won two of the last three state championships, rising to national prominence under coach David Boyd. But Boyd resigned in September amid allegations of undue influence that led to the Georgia High School Association banning the Eagles from the 2013 postseason.
The playoff ban has not impacted the players’ interest in the program.
“We had approximately 80 kids show up for the first day of tryouts,” Keys said. “It was a lot more than we had during the nine years that I was the coach previously. Obviously, with a new coach, there is going to be a lot of people wanting to come out, thinking they might have an opportunity now.”
Keys, 52, will lead his alma mater onto the court at four-time defending AAAA champion Miller Grove on Wednesday. In a recent Q&A with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he talked about his dedication to the school and his team’s attitude and resilience.
Q: You’ve spent 24 years teaching at your alma mater and served a lot of different roles. But I have to believe that stepping into your new role as interim coach of the basketball team has to be the most difficult step of your career. How are you approaching this challenge?
A: “The real difficulty is that this happened so fast and ate that, unlike all of the other coaches, I did not have any lead time to prepare. Luckily, I have experience doing this and I am fortunate in having Dave Burnett as my varsity assistant coach. He was my assistant for nine years, when I was the head coach.
Q: One of the players who transferred in last season, highly-touted guard Johnnie Vasser, left the program. Have you had any other players leave the program this offseason?
A: “You play with the kids/players that are in the school/gym when tryouts start. If anyone left, I did not know them so that does not affect what I have to do. How do you miss players that you never saw play? We are excited about the players we have and look forward to working with them.”
Q: Who are the key players on your roster?
A: “All are key players for us: Mo Lewis(11th), Chris Lewis(9th), Justin Kornegay(11th), Shawn O’Connell(11th), Scott Kelly(12th), Charles Wilson-Fisher(12th).”
Q: What are some of the ways you will motivate your players, who know they
are not eligible for the postseason?
A: “Every game will be big for us. We play a tough schedule and will work to be ready to compete every night. Each game takes on significance and will make us better as the season moves along. Each game is a playoff game for
Q: What message would you like to deliver to parents and Milton community about the direction of the basketball program and Milton athletics overall?
A: “Stuff happens all the time to different degrees in every workplace. This will be a growing experience for our players, coaches, and community. My job is to prepare the team and guide them through the season. We will do our best and do things the right way.”