When Stephenson coach Ron Gartrell is informed by an assistant coach that a reporter is there to get a look at his team’s dozen-plus college prospects, he laughs and rolls his eyes.
“I’m going to have to fire that guy,” he says of assistant coach Corey Johnson. “He’s telling lies about us.”
He was joking, of course. But like any head coach, Gartrell is not about to brag on his kids in the dawn of a new season.
But like it or not, Stephenson’s mass production of college prospects is the real deal. And while this year’s numbers are extraordinarily high, it’s something the DeKalb County school in southeast Stone Mountain has been doing for years.
“The last time we had this kind of a group was probably the 2002 team, I think, when we had Reggie Ball and Kregg Lumpkin and T.J. [Gartrell] and Israel Root and all those guys,” Gartrell said. “That team ended up with 15 kids going to college, including five Division I signees. This group has a chance to be in double-digits; I’ll just leave it at that. But it’s been amazing. I can’t believe we’ve been able to perform at the level that we have with the players we’ve had over this number of years. It’s just unbelievable.”
DeMario Minter, Anthony Cannon, Marcus Ball, Jermaine Cunningham, Alex Washington, the list of top-shelf players Stephenson has produced goes on and on. So what’s the secret to producing all this talent?
“A lot our kids are kind of home grown,” Gartrell said. “They come out of Wade Walker Park and the Central DeKalb Youth Association, they come out of Redan Park. We get some out of Stephenson Middle, some out of Lithonia Middle. We just kind of work with what we get. And we’ve been fortunate to get some kids that are willing to work hard and do the things we ask them to do.”
Gartrell said he doesn’t do anything special to facilitate recruiting interest from colleges. In fact, he’s adamant about not steering his players in any particular direction. He points out that his players have signed with every SEC school except Ole Miss and South Carolina. Both are recruiting Stephenson players this year.
“I just try to stay out of it as much as I can,” he said. “I leave my door open for [the players] because they’re to ones that have to go play and have to go to class. They need to decide. I encourage them to do all their research they need to do to make a good decision. I tell them, “Don’t make it based on some team you’ve loved over the years or the team colors or how they play on Madden or whatever. Make the decision based on your research. Talk with the coaches but realize the coaches are movable. So don’t sign to play with a coach because the coach might not be there.’”
Stability has also been a factor at Stephenson. Gartrell’s current staff has been intact since 1998. And former players regularly return to mentor and coach. Minter, Root and Cannon were all helping out Monday as volunteers while their professional playing careers are in flux.
“These guys have had shots at the NFL,” Gartrell said. “They come back and talk to these kids. They work out with them. They run with them and they give them an idea what it takes to perform at the next level. I think that has a lot to do with it. And our off-season strength and conditioning program is probably second to none. We’ve developed a great weight program through Reggie Ball Sr. Donald Sellers, our defensive coordinator, has been very successful as a track coach. Those guys have put their heads together to give us a 12-month program. Injuries are down and our team speed is up and are kids are always getting better.”
Yet the one thing Stephenson has been unable to produce is a state championship. Gartrell — the only coach the Jaguars have ever had — has led them to six region titles, made the state semifinals once and the quarterfinals four times. He’s 106-45 (.702) heading into Saturday’s opener against McNair.
Gartrell said he’d like nothing more than to win a state title for Stephenson, but it’s not what defines him. He’s more interested in his players getting opportunities beyond high school. Fifty-one have earned some kind all-state honor. More than that ended up in college. More than a few of those have gotten a shot in the NFL.
So could this be the year for Stephenson, ranked No. 5 in Class AAAAA?
“It’s going to be interesting to see how things go,” Gartrell says with a grin.