Jacqueline Coleman was finished coaching basketball, at least for the foreseeable future.
After a string of record-setting seasons with East Jessamine’s girls’ basketball team, Coleman resigned from that post last spring to follow the playing career of her daughter, Emma Young, at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and begin pursuit of a doctorate degree in educational leadership at the University of Kentucky. In a heartfelt letter directed at East Jessamine players posted to her personal blog, Coleman wrote, “Just like you, I’m not sure what I want to be when I grow up. ... Maybe I’ll get back into coaching. Maybe I’ll be governor one day.”
Coleman, who once ran for a seat in the state House of Representatives, could visit the governor’s mansion this year; not as a candidate, but as head coach of the Nelson County girls, ranked 24th in the latest Cantrall Ratings and a contender for the 5th Region championship. She was approached by school officials to take the role a few days after an altercation on Jan. 7, reported by the Kentucky Standard, between former head coach Kelly Wood and former assistant G.B. Walls after an 85-57 loss to Scott County. Both men resigned.
“It was one of those situations where I thought like I could help,” said Coleman, now an instructional coach for the Nelson County school system. “And if someone was asking me to help, I was gonna have a very hard time telling them no.”
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Jason Clark, another former assistant, coached Nelson’s first game after the midseason incident — a 71-19 win over Washington County — but resigned after Coleman was brought in. The Cardinals are 11-1 in her fifth week with the program and 25-3 overall this season.
Uncertainty ran amok as Coleman took over. She decided quickly that she’d rather be uncomfortable and learn the system and principles her new players were used to rather than ask them to overhaul themselves a month away from the postseason. They coached her as much as she did them in the beginning.
“They came to my office during lunch and they helped me draw up plays. They helped talk me through what practices were like, the details of how they defended, all of those things,” said Coleman, who was with East Jessamine for seven seasons after a year at Burgin. “If it weren’t for them talking me through it, I wouldn’t have been able to pick it up as quickly as I did.”
Assistants Jamie Hodges, whose eighth-grade daughter Amelia plays, and David Simpson stayed with the program after Wood’s departure. They’ve been “immensely helpful” as well, Coleman said. All of the help did little to settle her nerves in her first few games back on the sideline, though.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever been in as uncomfortable a situation as that, just to be real honest,” she said with a laugh.
Marly Walls, G.B.’s daughter, is Nelson County’s leading scorer at 18.5 points per game. Wood’s daughter, Madison, also plays for the Cardinals. Coleman has been “hypersensitive” to their situations, but says they’ve handled themselves incredibly well.
“If you didn’t know the story, you wouldn’t be able to tell, which is speaking volumes about a couple of teenagers’ ability to be mature and rise above,” she said.
Coleman accepted the role with the caveat that she would only do so on an interim basis, so the job will be posted next month. If Coleman’s players have their say, the new coach will inherit a club coming off a state-tournament trip.
Nelson County was a heavy favorite entering its 19th District game against Bethlehem on Thursday night. Elizabethtown is expected to take its fourth straight 5th Region crown, but the Cardinals took a 62-60 decision against the Panthers at home on Dec. 6 and are hungry for what would be the program’s first girls’ Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1990.
“You wouldn’t play a tournament if you knew what the outcome was gonna be,” Coleman said. “The level of resilience that these kids have continually shown has been nothing short of impressive. My very first conversation with them, I told them that I accepted this role to help them finish what they started.
“So that’s kind of been our mantra for the year. ‘You all have got to finish what you started.’”