Thomas County Central girls basketball coach Jenny Johnson is in her 13th season with the Lady Jackets. This year’s team was 6-7 heading into Friday night’s game at Lee County.

THOMASVILLE — Jenny Johnson began coaching in 1981.

Twenty-nine years and 503 wins later, the veteran girls basketball coach is as dedicated and determined as ever.

“You just do the best that you can and you do it for the kids,” she said.

That’s the mindset Johnson has lived by, whether it be at Pelham, Crisp County or Central. She has always put her players first, even as she neared the 500-win plateau this year.

“I never dreamed (of 500 wins) or paid much attention to it until a few years ago when Mr. (Frank) Delaney and coach Ed Pilcher made me apply for some award somewhere and made me figure out the overall record,” Johnson said. “I’m happy that we were able to have so many 20-win seasons. But right now. it’s about where the kids are right now and what they’re trying to do.”

In 29 years, Johnson has led her teams to 14 20-win seasons, including four at Central. Johnson had 10 20-win campaigns during two stints with Pelham. It was during the 1997-98 season — her last with Pelham — that Johnson accomplished every coach’s ultimate goal — a state championship. She recalled what made that team special.

“Heart of a team. It was a very small team. I think our tallest starter was 5-6, if that,” Johnson said. “They had a never-die attitude. They were fun to watch.”

Johnson’s teams are fun to watch, in large part, because of the style of basketball they play. They attack offenses with a pressing-style defense. Combine that with all-out hustle and Johnson’s squads are normally successful.

“The biggest thing in basketball, you enjoy watching her team play because you know they’re always going to play hard,” Central football coach Bill Shaver said. “They’re always going to play hard the whole game. It’s a fast-paced game. Her trademark is the full-court press. They’re fun to watch”

There are other reasons that factor in Johnson being a successful coach, like a willingness to adapt. Johnson will be the first to admit she is not the same coach as when she started in 1981.

“My girls at Pelham will say I’m a lot softer than I used to be,” Johnson said. “I think the kids here will tell you I’m still tough. The kids at Pelham will say, ‘Oh no, she’s nowhere near where she used to be.

“People will say the kids don’t change. They do. The kids have changed in the 29 years that I’ve coached. To me, you can’t be as hard on them as you used to be,” Johnson added. “The way I look at it, the kids have changed, but every year there’s a state champion. Somebody’s finding a way to make the kids do what they need to do.

“I’ve found I have to be not quite as tough as I have been in the past.”

Johnson has also had to change philosophies when needed. For example, this year’s 6-7 team has had to utilize less full-court pressure on occasions..

“To me, the key in beating Thomasville was we couldn’t press them and we couldn’t play zone because they hit the three-pointer so well. We had to play man,” Johnson added. “We’re a lot more man this year. We’ve changed that philosophy a little bit.

“The bread-and-butter has always been the press, get after it and go. But you’ve got to try to win anyway you can.”

Johnson has proven to be a winner everywhere she’s been. She claimed her first career win at age 21. By age 50, Johnson neared the 500-win plateau and reached the milestone this season over the Christmas break in a Lowndes Holiday tournament game. Johnson was honored for her achievement during Central’s last home game against Thomasville.

“That’s a phenomenal number to reach in any sport,” Shaver said. “We’re just proud to have her in our program.”

Johnson is also quick to credit a pair of coaches who have served as her biggest influences as a coach, starting with former Crisp County basketball coach Junior Peeples.

“He was like a second father to me,” Johnson said. “I ended up student teaching at Crisp County and I learned a lot of basketball from him. That’s one of the reasons I went to Crisp County for a year.

“Coming here and spending 13 years here so far, Ed Pilcher was (an influence), too,” added Johnson, referring to Central’s former football coach and athletic director. “Ed was just a great guy that got me anything that I needed or whatever I needed.”

Another year will be Johnson’s 30th in coaching. It’s a number she has targeted to possibly be her last.

“It’s so hard to teach six classes and turn around and try to give your best to the kids all the time. Thirty, I’m looking at it hard,” Johnson said. “You hear people say, ‘No she’s not.’ But I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’

“Coaching’s what I do, so I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t coach.”

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