The Cherokee girls coach has guided teams to region championships and through playoff runs. He has helped players develop their skills and seen a few fulfill their dreams of playing in college.
Cates, however, has never had a season quite like this one.
The Lady Warriors, who finished with a 29-2 record, played like were on a mission. Their only loss of the regular season came Dec. 8 against Creekview. After that, they strung together 23 victories before falling to Norcross in the Class AAAAAA state quarterfinals.
Along the way, Cherokee won the Region 5AAAAAA title after sweeping through its region opponents.
For guiding his team on a successful campaign, Cates is the 2012-13 Cherokee Tribune Girls Basketball Coach of the Year.
Cates was quick to pass the credit on to his players.
“We had a good group of kids — a good group of seniors — who worked hard,” Cates said. “It just all came together. It’s all about them. They were a good group and they did a very good job.”
Cates benefitted from a deep pool of talent.
Seniors Sara Byers, Kiana Howell, Christy Mixon and Morgan Darby all played key roles. Junior Aunesha Williams dominated when she was on the court, and underclassmen Bethany Huch and Sydney Pefanis stepped up late in the season.
“We had a unique team this year,” Cates said. “We didn’t have to rely on one kid doing it. We had a lot of different kids who did different things for us, whether it was scoring or rebounding or playing defense for us. We had kids that didn’t show up on anybody’s scorebook or anybody’s stat sheet, but they did the little things that help teams win, and most people don’t notice.”
Cates said he looks at a particular season differently when it’s a team effort, as opposed to a few players who carry the team.
“It’s much more fun to coach when it’s a team,” he said. “When we aren’t just relying on one or two kids, it’s a much more fun game. I thought our kids did a good job of showing what a team can do.”
Cates said he and his players never mentioned the winning streak during the course of the season, but it’s something they talk about now.
The coach looks at it as something special.
“We won 23 in a row,” he said. “When you look back, it is really special for our kids and our school. In 57 years, we have 14 region championships. They don’t come along, except with special cases and special teams, and this group was definitely one of them.”
Cates said the team will always have its banner on the wall.
Through his years at Cherokee, Cates has seen the game change. Players are more aggressive, and many play year-round to hone their skills.
“The game has changed quite a bit,” he said. “It’s much more physical, even on the girls’ side. It’s more demanding on kids’ bodies with more demand on weight-training. I don’t think we are through seeing the changes yet.”
Cates said it’s exciting to be part of the game’s evolution.
“If you didn’t love it, you wouldn’t do it,” he said. “With the amount of time you put in for the amount of pay, it’s not like you are getting rich. It’s just fun to see kids grow from seventh-, eighth-graders entering the program, through ninth, 10th, 11th. And then, to see a senior graduate, whether they go to school or not, it is special to know you had a hand in part of their life.
“This group was no different. We knew they were going to be special when they were freshmen. I’m just glad that it paid off for them.”