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The best of 2011-2012: Game plan featured major changes for Nino

Editor’s note: All this week, The Free Lance-Star is recapping the top five sports stories of the school year.

    No. 5 story: The rise of Fredericksburg Christian’s basketball team.

    No. 4 story: Colonial Forge’s wrestling team finishes back on top at the state tournament.

    No. 3: After coaching Courtland’s boys to a state basketball title, J.T. Nino switches gears and leads the girls to the state final.

BY TAFT COGHILL JR.

When J.T. Nino took over as the girls basketball coach at Courtland High School, he knew he had a talented nucleus, but not much depth.

However, the 2011–12 season ended up being a thrill ride that not even Nino anticipated.

With a six-player rotation, the Cougars rolled to 30 straight victories before they lost to Millbrook in the Group AA, Division 4 state championship game.

Along the way, Nino’s wife gave birth to twin boys one month prematurely and the basketball court became a sanctuary for the coach.

Courtland’s season and Nino’s ordeal is The Free Lance–Star’s No. 3 story of the 2011–12 school year.

“It was a fantastic season,” Nino said. “The group we had going into the season was an experienced group. I think they were looking to take the next step, and I’m just glad I could be a part of that. It was pretty cool.”

Rising senior Janae McNeal (21.1 points per game, 7.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 5.4 steals) was named Battlefield District, Region I and Free Lance–Star player of the year.

Teammates Jessica Hairston and Anika Trent also earned first-team all-district honors.

Still, the Cougars had their limitations. Only eight players were on the team, and the program went without a junior varsity squad.

It was unlike anything Nino had been a part of as the coach of Courtland’s boys team the previous eight years, including a run to the 2009 state title.

“I really don’t know how or why it ended up that way,” Nino said of his program’s lack of players. “But it could’ve been a lot worse. The girls played their best, and luckily we didn’t get into too much foul trouble.”

Nino used just five players in the state title game against a Millbrook team that finished the season undefeated and is currently on an 80-game winning streak.

The road to the final, however, is something Nino will never forget. On Feb. 8, his wife, Renee, gave birth to Benjamin and Griffin.

The babies had an extended hospital stay, but Benjamin’s prognosis was much more serious. He was listed in critical condition after suffering a collapsed lung and a heart defect that required surgery.

Nino often slept in a Washington hospital, went to work whenever he could and conducted practice at night.

Benjamin later required a second surgery that wasn’t as serious as the initial one.

“He came through like a champ,” Nino said.

Nino said on Monday that both boys are now “growing, sleeping and doing really well.”

He’s looking forward to next season with four starters returning. He’s hoping for a little more depth and a less stressful personal life.

“Now that I’m looking back on it and everything is okay, from a personal standpoint, it took a toll on me,” Nino said. “But going to practice and being around the girls every night brought a sense of relief to the whole situation.”

Taft Coghill Jr.: 540/374-5526

tcoghill@freelancestar.com

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