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Thursday, January 15, 2009
Updated: January 16, 12:35 PM ET
Madison (Texas) pushes the limits

By Jeff Miller
Special to ESPNRISE.com

SAN ANTONIO -- It's semester exam week at Madison (San Antonio). For junior point guard Jamal Johnson, that meant staying up until 2 a.m. Tuesday morning.

Cameron Catlett
Cameron Catlett and the Mavericks have adopted the philosophy of their coach.

"Algebra II," Johnson said, almost forlorn. "Math isn't my strong suit."

But exam week has provided a relative respite for the Madison Mavericks, ranked sixth in ESPN RISE's FAB 50 with a 23-1 record. They regularly practice at 6 a.m., but exam week has altered the court schedule.

Not that the practices are that much easier at a more reasonable hour. They're still equal parts hardwood laboratory and boot camp. Innovation and intensity are the hallmarks of seventh-year coach John Valenzuela.

A Madison workout seems to feature almost as many push-ups as layups. Some drills resemble "American Gladiators." It's not a coincidence that Valenzuela's coaching résumé features time as an offensive coordinator.

"My number one goal in practice is to make it tougher than a game and to expose them to every situation they'll ever face," said Valenzuela, son of a preacher and an ordained minister himself. "Kids always tell me, 'Coach, games are a lot easier.' That's all I can do as a coach."

There are "games" during practice that consist of one possession and last 30 seconds. There are "games" during which the varsity players are asked to score 20 points and the jayvees 10. There are drills in which four players must beat five across midcourt … only to face a different set of defenders beyond the timeline.

Senior forward Jonathan Landry, a Coppin State signee, rolled his eyes after describing that last drill, which is named Maverick Pride. "Every time you catch it, you're always doubled," he moaned.

Valenzuela doesn't run his players ragged just for fun. To borrow some Yogi Berra math, he intends to focus 70 percent of practice on what he believes are the three most common ways to score: off defense, fast breaks and set plays.

"When we play, you should see those three priorities really come out," Valenzuela said.

Madison's goals are lofty -- namely, a third consecutive trip to the Class 5A state tournament in Austin and, this time, to bring home something more than the memory of playing in the state's final four. The Mavericks lost in the 2007 semifinals to Kingwood and in the '08 semifinals to North Crowley (Fort Worth), each time by nine points.

"I think this year we have a great chance of winning the whole thing," Landry said.

This team has been a relative surprise given that the Mavericks lost two NCAA Division I signees: forwards Charlie Harper (Lamar) and Roshun Jackson (Texas State-San Marcos). They were unranked in ESPN RISE's preseason poll.

Madison Mavericks
Madison defeated preseason No. 1 Duncanville at the Texas Invitational Basketball Tournament in November.

Madison has regularly responded to the challenge of facing heavyweight opponents this season and not let down against lesser ones. Its wins include victories over 2007 champion Duncanville and two over North Crowley, which won the 5A title last season. The only loss came during the Dallas ISD holiday tournament, to 4A standout Carter (Dallas) in overtime.

On Saturday, the Mavericks will complete their first run through District 26-5A with a game against Reagan (San Antonio). In winning its first seven district games, Madison has outscored its opponents by an average of 29 points.

"Our kids have exceeded the expectations," Valenzuela said. "I'm very pleased with them. Surprised, but they're not surprised. They thought they could do it."

Said Johnson: "I don't think anyone could expect how well we're playing except us."

And why aren't the players surprised? "Because of how hard we train," he said.

When victories have been clinched early, Valenzuela has turned to creating games within games: score seven points in the next minute and make the other coach call a timeout.

"I'm not trying to disrespect our opponent," he said. "We have to get ourselves mentally ready for that moment so when it comes up, we practiced it live."

Don't look for Mavericks in the area's statistical leaders listed each Tuesday in the San Antonio Express-News. Valenzuela is a conscientious objector when it comes to reporting his players' stats.

"The only stat we're interested in is our won-lost record," he said. "When kids start looking -- 'Hey, you're averaging…' -- then it starts getting personal. I want to keep the integrity of the concept of team."

Madison is trying its best to bring a 5A title back to Region IV, and specifically to San Antonio. The last winner in the state's largest classification from the region and the city was John Jay in 2002.

"That would say a lot about our region," said senior guard Cameron Catlett, a three-year starter. "The pressure is pretty tough. It's not a good feeling to go three times in a row and get knocked out in the first round of state."

And once those pesky exams are out of the way, the Mavericks can settle back into regularly rising at 5 a.m.

"It's a good thing," Johnson said, some assurance in his voice. "It shows he cares."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.