When the Central Arkansas Christian boys basketball job opened unexpectedly in 2010, the Mustangs faced having to break in their third coach in as many seasons.
The hiring of Steve Quattlebaum — who had never coached boys — might have raised some eyebrows, but his credentials as the architect of CAC’s successful girls program soon quieted any criticism.
He is a basketball coach, not a girls coach, but even some of his players had to learn that.
“Naturally, the thought goes through your mind: He’s a girls coach; can he coach boys?” senior Josh Holland said. “And we were not very good that year. We had doubts going into the [5A-Southwest] conference [schedule], but by the end of the year, we loved Coach Q.
“He didn’t give up on us when we started the year (0-8), and by the end of the year, we qualified for the [Class 5A] state tournament. By then, we didn’t want any other coach.”
The feeling was mutual.
Quattlebaum, who at press time had built a 398-147 record with three consecutive state championships while coaching the Lady Mustangs, had hankered to try his hand with the boys, and he found the perfect group to do so at Mustang Mountain.
Holland and his four classmates — Dylan Sherrill, Travis Byrne, Beau Barnes and Logan Stafford — eventually wound up earning starting positions as sophomores that year, and the five are now senior starters for a CAC team that started 3-0 in 7-4A conference play.
Quattlebaum is a key part of the team’s success, Byrne said.
“He’s been that guy,” he said. “He didn’t give up on us. In 10th grade we didn’t do so hot, and he stuck with us, and I’m glad he gave us our senior year to stick it out with us.”
The group formed the perfect class for Quattlebaum to answer his own question about coaching boys.
“They’ve just been really a hard-working group,” said Quattlebaum, 54. “They had a great attitude, and they’ve persevered through a lot. That first year, we ended up with eight players. We had to get teachers to help us practice.
“I had kept up with that group. I knew they’d excelled in junior high. They had asked me a couple of times before if I’d consider [coaching] the boys, too, but having that group coming probably helped [the decision] a little bit. More than anything, I knew what kind of kids they were, that they were going to have a good attitude and work hard, and that their parents had been very supportive.”
During 2010-11, the Mustangs lost their first eight games and started 0-3 in the 5A-Southwest. But they won seven of 10 during one stretch and qualified for the Class 5A State Tournament as the league’s fourth seed before finishing 8-17.
It was only the second losing season of Quattlebaum’s 27-year career. But it made him proud.
It’s natural, he said, for any new coach to face transition challenges from any new team.
“I guess the fact that I’d coached girls heightened it a little bit,” he said, “but [the boys have] always been very coachable and tried to do what we told them to do, for the most part.”
The Mustangs’ competitiveness and confidence, however, sometimes get them in trouble.
“Sometimes we have trouble getting them to do the things we want them to do because they’re just confident,” Quattlebaum said, referring to a recent game when coaches wanted the players to hold the ball to preserve the win, but instead they kept going to the basket and ended up having to go to overtime. “They’re capable of frustrating you a little bit, more out of their competitiveness than anything else.”
During 2011-12, CAC finished 16-12 and again qualified for the state tournament, again as the fourth seed, and again with a first-round loss.
At press time, the Mustangs were 10-5.
Holland, 6-1, is an undersized center, but Quattlebaum praised his toughness, effort and rebounding.
“He holds his own in there against a lot bigger players every night,” the coach said.
Stafford, a 5-9 guard, like Holland, wondered a bit when Quattlebaum took over the boys team, but he, too, was quickly sold on him.
“It’s nice to be able to know what we’re going to have instead of wondering,” Stafford said. “I’d say we’re a better team as a whole since he’s been here. He works real well with all the guys. He’s easy to talk to and answers your questions really easily. We like him as a coach and as a guy.”
He said he believes Quattlebaum has adapted his coaching style to the boys game.
“They are two entirely different games; the guys are at a much faster pace, and he likes that a lot,” Stafford said.
Quattlebaum teasingly said Stafford reminded him of himself when he played high school basketball at Harrison.
“He’s a guard, but I almost call his position the same one I played in high school — shooter,” Quattlebaum said, chuckling. “He’s our best shooter, but he’s also had 5- and 6-rebound games recently. In the past, all we’ve seen is how many shots he took and made — no assists, no rebounds, no steals.”
Byrne, a 6-0 forward, might be the team’s best athlete, Quattlebaum said.
“He jumps really well and has played well the last three or four games,” he said. “He’s picked it up, gotten a lot of rebounds and scored in double figures the last few games.”
Byrne, who will play baseball at the University of Central Arkansas next year, said this class had known since seventh grade that their senior year could be special if they stuck together.
“We’re hoping to be the conference champs and win at least one game in the state tournament,” he said. “It’ll be a lot easier in [Class] 4A because we don’t have much size. In [Class] 5A, our 6-0 post was trying to guard a bunch of 6-5 and 6-6 players, so it’ll be more evenly matched.”
Quattlebaum said Sherrill, a 5-10 guard, is perhaps the most improved Mustang this season.
“Right now, he’s probably our best scoring option,” Quattlebaum said. “He’s good at shooting off the dribble, and he’s always been a good passer — almost too good. He throws a lot of passes we can’t catch. I’m really proud of him.”
Sherrlll said Quattlebaum was “a great find for us.”
“We’d been looking for somebody to invest in our basketball program,” he said, adding that the girls-coach label was “absolutely not” a negative.
“He had earned our respect for the prestige of the program he’d created,” Sherrill said. “When you find out he’s won three state championships in a row, there’s no doubt he’s going to be a find for us.”
Sherrill, who will play soccer for Harding next year, was familiar with Quattlebaum because Sherrill’s older sister, Taylor, had played on the coach’s Lady Mustang teams.
The same was true for Barnes, the 5-6 point guard whose older sister, Lindsey, was a Lady Mustang alum.
“She won two state championships, so I knew he was a very successful coach,” Barnes said. “There was just a little apprehension in my mind because it is a little different coaching guys, but I figured if you’re that good of a coach, it’s not going to matter that much.”
He said the Mustangs came to appreciate what Quattlebaum brought them.
“We realized if we put into play what he’s telling us to do in games, we can actually be successful,” Barnes said. “We’re not the most talented team or the biggest team, but we play really well together, and we’re a smart team.
“Once we realized he knew what he was talking about and wasn’t just a girls coach, that’s when we really started to realize we could have success.”
Quattlebaum said Barnes’ steadiness had been key for the Mustangs’ improvement.
“We went a long time without getting him in the lineup his sophomore year, but when we did, we immediately became a better team,” the coach said. “He’s our best defender. He’s made a real difference.”
Barnes hopes to kick for Harding or Arkansas State’s football team next year.
While these five seniors have been together since they were seventh-graders, they’ve recently taken in another member. Jacob Laney, a 5-11 guard, transferred from Episcopal Collegiate.
“They’ve been really good about bringing him into the group and making him feel like one of them,” Quattlebaum said. “He’s played some good games for us and is going to help us as the season goes along.”
Quattlebaum will step down as boys coach after this season to concentrate on the girls, and he and his seniors hope to go out with a memorable finish.
“We’ve got a lot of games left, but we have a chance of finishing really high in the conference and maybe winning it, get in the regional, maybe get to the state tournament and maybe win a game or two,” Quattlebaum said. “Once you win a game or two, you never know what can happen.”