The taste of coaching for Lady Bulldog alumni Mackenzie Engram and Haley Clark

"I wanted to be a part of their lives and help shape their path in some form," Engram said.

POWDER SPRINGS, Ga. (virtually) — One of the sixth graders on the Hillgrove girls’ middle school basketball team usually walked into the practice gym beaming with joy. She’d have her moments of frustration, but giddiness usually prevailed.

She walked into practice one evening, however, with an awful attitude. She was defiant, didn’t run sprints to her full ability and likely became a bit of a disruption.

The young player’s behavior nearly made her head coach, Mackenzie Engram, snap. She pulled her player to the side for a post-practice conversation to figure out the root of the issue. Engram might’ve originally thought it was a serious matter.

“I had such a bad day,” the girl said, as Engram recalled. “Nothing is going right for me.”

Haley Clark, who assisted Engram on staff, walked over to listen. They asked the girl to explain.

“She forgot her homework. She forgot to bring her water bottle,” Clark said. “Her teeth were sore. Her little sister kept getting her in trouble.”

The two coaches had a bit of a flashback moment. They tried to reflect, because they couldn’t imagine these concerns altering their day to such a magnified extent.

“I literally had to pull my mask back up to hide the smile,” Engram said.

But as is with the life of a sixth grader, the little girl was dead serious. Clark took over. She locked herself into the mode of coach, life counselor and also became an extension of the young player’s mother at the snap of a finger. Clark instantly calmed the girl down.

“Baby girl, we have these bad days. Let's focus on the good,” Clark remembered saying. “You're so blessed.”

Welcome to the world of coaching. This, however, wasn’t the brand of Division I basketball that the two Lady Bulldog alumni were used to. Engram and Clark spent recent months biting their teeth into the coaching profession — albeit on a volunteer basis — with a group of sixth-grade girls at Engram’s high school alma mater where her old uniform is hung in the hallways.

Engram led a staff of coaches which included three other former college players: Clark, Tene Thompson (Tulane) and her younger sister Taylor Thompson. A spontaneous decision by the two former Georgia players put Engram and Clark into a true leadership position. They had been the anchors of an NCAA tournament run in the 2017-18 season and were an extension of their coach, Joni Taylor.

This endeavor, however, took the ask of leadership to a new level. Engram and Clark suddenly drew an emotional attachment to their team, and hope for their voluntary coaching careers to continue at the AAU level in the near future.

Their first experience presented the challenges of managing an emotional and sometimes-frustrating group of sixth graders. It eventually became the biggest reward for the pair of former hoopers who found their way back to the court.

“We were the leaders as coaches here, and we were in a unique spot as we just played college basketball,” Clark said. “It was important for us to lead by example in everything we did.”

A ‘spur-of-the-moment’ decision

Engram has explored many different areas since hanging up the Lady Bulldog uniform for the final time, nearly three full years ago. She tried overseas basketball multiple times, gained photography experience, launched a denim jacket business and has goals to start a podcast. If you think of a hobby with career potential, Engram has probably done it.

Except coaching. She has thought about it. Nothing ever came to fruition, though, because Engram thought it might be coaching her future children down the line or helping with an AAU team. The idea of it occurring in the near future didn’t cross her mind.

On a random October day, Hillgrove High School girls’ basketball coach Susan Milam changed that. She gave Engram, one of the school’s all-time players with her uniform hung in the school hallways, a call.

“You know I'm not doing anything,” Engram remembered saying in response. “It's probably not that big of a deal or that time consuming. Sure, why not.”

A matter of moments later, Engram took a head-coaching role in a way she never expected.

Clark, meanwhile, kept her attachment to the game by leading training sessions with a 10-year-old boy. The child’s father spoke with Clark about pursuing a coaching role. He recommended it, even, but Clark brushed it off.

“Eh, I don’t think it’s for me,” Clark said.

Clark and Engram have remained best friends since moving on from Georgia. Engram said, at one time, that her days are incomplete without speaking with her former teammate. Clark works in Atlanta and remained close to her roots planted in the Peach State.

During one of their chats, Engram broke the news that she was going to coach. Clark had a celebratory response and offered plenty of support. On the morning of the first practice, Engram lobbied for her closest assistant. She wanted Clark to join, and she quickly accepted.

“I do not think it was something I planned on doing,” Engram said. “I do not think Haley did either. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that we both made.”

Finding a coaching niche

Engram and Clark got the coaching call after team tryouts. The rosters were already selected, and these new coaches didn’t have a clue what they were working with.

For the first few days, the sixth- and seventh-grade teams worked together with the assistance of the other coaching staff.

“It was strictly drills,” Engram said. “We didn’t know if they could dribble or shoot.”

Once Engram got to lead her group, however, she treated it as if she were Taylor running a practice inside Stegeman Coliseum.

Her father, Derrick Engram, had previous experience coaching at the lower levels. The new sixth-grade head coach knew where to turn for help. Her father said to take it seriously, even though they’re in sixth grade. Engram and Clark remembered being coached hard at a young age, too, so they wanted to carry some of those elements.

“Mack came prepared. She had a practice plan like she was at Georgia,” Clark said. “She had time slots. She had the drills. We were ready because Mack had it laid out. Neither of us were nervous or over our heads.”

The group of girls met two-to-three times a week. They had about an hour-and-a-half to practice together each night, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Engram and Clark had the uphill climb of trying to teach skill work while preparing and drawing up plays for games — which might take a full session in itself, the coaches said.

Meanwhile, the sixth grade girls acted like sixth graders. They wouldn’t listen and execute drills correctly. The team would zone out and need instructions repeated numerous times. Engram and Clark might demonstrate a concept step-by-step, but the players didn’t want to apply the teachings at times.

“You need a structure and a system, but everyone comes to college with the skills,” Clark said. “We could've done more skill work at the beginning. You can't be in the system without the skills, but now we know for next time.”

Engram wanted the result. She had a fast-paced approach to practices and wanted to say “Do it! Do it!” when going over a drill. Clark, meanwhile, was the instructor when the girls needed to learn a concept. She reminded the players why a certain thing is done within the sport and provided the needed insight.

Suddenly, they had a perfect balance.

“Mack was the fire to their butt. She was the one to push them, hype them up. She got them going, but it made for a great offset,” Clark said. “I'd say Mack is more like Joni, and I was more like (Georgia associate head coach) Karen (Lange).”

A chance to play again

Engram and Clark always kept their practice uniforms handy. They came into use on these middle school practice nights.

An all-star coaching staff with plenty of Division I college basketball experience gave this group of Hillgrove girls a unique perspective. They were able to demonstrate plays, concepts and drills. They were as hands-on as a coaching staff could possibly be due to a young age and remaining in shape — for the most part, at least.

Then, there were the fun moments. Engram and Clark got to suit up and scrimmage against sixth-grade girls. And as you might imagine, it became an awe-drawing mismatch with the pair of former Lady Bulldogs and the Thompson sisters.

“We went out there and busted ‘em,” Engram said.

After a while, the girls said Engram and Clark were going too hard on them in these live-action scrimmages. These former college players, however, got a return to the court in the most unique of ways.

They weren’t going to miss putting on a show.

“We'd do the simplest move, and they'd be like ‘Whoooooaaa!’” Clark said. “Their eyes would get so big. They saw us like WNBA players.”

In other moments though, Engram and Clark didn’t think the sixth graders understood the value of having recently-departed college players as their on-court leaders and mentors. Some of that is young age.

Their hope, however, is that they helped mold these young girls in some fashion.

“They think we're the ordinary coach,” Engram said. “I think they'll realize down the line how blessed they were to have the four of us as coaches with our experience.”

Shaping their path

Engram and Clark tried to be tough coaches. They’d yell. They didn’t shy away from being demanding. But they also regretted it for a second or two after.

These were players who arrived in a shell. They didn’t say much. Each practice, the blossoming began and the sixth graders showed their personality. They showed their hearts and got to the point where they instructed Engram and Clark in a loving manner by season’s end.

“We were very nice. I hated yelling at the girls,” Engram said. “It hurt my heart. It's because they're so cute and young. You don't want to damage them at such a young age. We had an emotional group, for sure.”

Engram and Clark continued to do what they strived for at Georgia — influence others. Not only were they team leaders in a Lady Bulldog uniform, but they took many initiatives in the Athens-Clarke County community. They’d stay after games, nearly every night, to meet and spend time with fans (oh, the joys of basketball before the pandemic). They wanted to make a difference in the lives of others.

Engram had experience working with younger players as she spoke to the Athens Academy varsity basketball team during her senior season at Georgia. Former teammate Taja Cole called Engram the “marriage counselor” and “life counselor.” Clark, meanwhile, was the do-it-all Georgia player who racked up the academic honors and served as the backbone who made the Lady Bulldogs tick through her leadership.

In this endeavor, they wanted to lead by example. They also made it a priority to focus on bettering their lives.

“We wanted to shower them with love, positivity and reassurance,” Engram said. “I felt that was my best way to lead them, and then they eventually understood our hearts.”

Along with those qualities, Engram and Clark relied on empathy and patience. And that’s where their true love for this coaching gig happened.

An attachment beyond the sport was born.

“You grow an actual relationship with them. It has always been really big for me to impact the youth,” Engram said. “I want to be a part of their lives and help shape their path in some form. You know that you're impacting them, but also getting to know their little personalities.”

‘I was hurt’

Engram locked in after a game against Marietta that went into overtime. Clark realized as the playoffs began that if their Hillgrove girls lost, that the season was over.

They didn’t want it to end.

“I was locked in and thought we would win out,” Engram said. “I grew with them, so it made me more passionate about wanting to win.”

A playoff game against North Forsyth came and the Hillgrove girls weren’t prepared. A few showed up to the court late. Others were sluggish and energy didn’t exist. Clark warned the players that they’d play how they warmed up, and it proved to be true.

Hillgrove lost by double digits. Engram said her team went about 6-for-30 in layups, and she doesn’t think that’s an exaggeration. Clark thought that they would’ve won if they made one-third of those easy baskets, then their Lady Hawks would’ve won.

There was nothing they could do. But a months-long journey came to an end and Engram and Clark were in disbelief, an emotion almost matching if they were playing.

The following Monday came, and they realized there wouldn’t be another practice.

“I was hurt,” Engram said. “That’s the competitive spirit that lives within us.”

“I got sick to my stomach,” Clark said. “I really love these girls.”

Engram remembered the moments of playing a “Gotcha!” game in practice as an icebreaker. They thought that their girls performed better when playing a basketball-related game before starting instruction. She cherished the cute and hilarious faces when the girls would be ruled out of the game.

Clark smiled when remembering postgame huddles. They wanted their players to speak, so they asked them to reflect. At first, they didn’t say much and kept to themselves with quiet personalities. Clark saw growth by the end, because their responses became heartfelt.

The first taste of coaching for Engram and Clark created admiration — for the responsibility and the girls they coached.

Each moment held a special memory. Even the ones where they flipped into mom mode and mentored a girl through a tough day because of a sore tooth. That might’ve been a favorite, after all.

“I looked forward to getting off of work everyday and coming to practice,” Clark said. “I loved it and would do it again.”