Staff Photo: John Boh Wesleyan girls basketball head coach Jan Azar with her players outside of Yancey Gymnasium. Azar has built this girls basketball program, as their only head coach.
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Jan Azar drove by a construction site for a new school in Norcross on a trip to visit her parents and, as she tells it, on a lark, turned in. On the budding campus, she found then and current Wesleyan headmaster Zach Young. She started with questions and eventually made her pitch.
"I was a math teacher and I was talking to (Zach Young) and he said, 'Do you think you can do this? You've never been a head coach.' I said, 'Well, you all don't have anything else, you might as well give me a try,'" Azar says in the retelling.
And then, she recalls the biggest point of the moment: "Nobody wanted this job."
She says this sitting in her corner office in the front of a 1,500-seat athletic building the school finished in 2006. The Yancey Gymnasium acts as epicenter for Wesleyan athletics, housing most of the coaches and the athletic administration office.
The school's 2006 magazine described the gym as "the primary performance facility for Wesleyan's volleyball and basketball teams." And it continued, "Fans will no longer have to stand against the walls or sit on the stage with a partially obscured view. Seating will be from the top down."
"Nobody wanted this job," isn't delivered with the irony it deserves. There is no lordly wave of the hand or even a hint at an arrogant smile. Azar just notes the fact and moves on.
Yet it needs noting.
More than 13 years passed from her intuitive turn into a construction zone. Of those seasons, only in the first did the varsity girls lose more than they won. Eight state championship banners hang from the rafters. The program boasts alumni who have played overseas and at major college programs. Others are assistants for their former coach.
Thirteen years ago, it was just Jan Turner. She wasn't even Azar yet.
"She was new just like Wesleyan was new. She was unproven, just like Wesleyan was unproven," Young said. "She mirrored the school at the time."
She still does.
Basketball and Atlanta course through Jan Azar and her family.
A St. Pius X graduate who played softball and basketball, Azar worked her way to Auburn on the court. Playing didn't stick and Azar returned to her home to teach and coach. A math teacher now, Azar started her college path with an eye on accounting, but she knew before even declaring that teaching and coaching were her callings.
"I knew when I was in high school that the thing that I enjoyed the most when I was in high school was being a part of the teams that I was on and that was due, in part, to the coaches that I had," Azar said. "I wanted to, hopefully, give that back to someone else. I knew that is where I had the most fun."
She ended up as an assistant softball and basketball coach at Pace Academy, stuck in the Catch-22 of coaches: Experience required.
"It's hard to find a head coaching job if you don't have any head coaching experience and you can't find any head coaching experience if you can't get a head coaching job," Azar said.
But no Turner stays away from coaching. Azar's brother, Ricky, is the athletic director at Blessed Trinity where he started the football program around the same time his sister laid roots at Wesleyan. Another brother, Michael, is the head baseball coach at Mount Vernon. The real winners are the Turner parents, who go season-to-season following their children's teams.
Athletics are not just a job to anyone in the family. Azar's husband, David, updates the team's website and her daughter Nicole plays basketball on the Wesleyan fifth-grade team.
Azar's wedding anniversary even falls around the time of the state basketball championship game, a date selected in her second season with the certainty of her team not making it that far.
"It's funny, because we never thought that in that year that we would be playing ... we knew for sure that we weren't going to be playing in the state championship, so we got married on that day," Azar said. "I remember Buford was playing Holy Innocents' and we read about it in the airport when we were leaving to go out of town."
Holy Innocents' won.
Building a foundation
When Jan Azar saw her first group of varsity girls players she knew one thing: They weren't very good. So, she came up with a plan, based on her style of play, effort and defense.
"When I first came, we really didn't have girls who could really shoot the ball really well," she said. "We had a hard time dribbling. I figured that we could become better, faster, if we could make layups and if we could play really good defense, which were two easy things to teach. That's, I believe, how all of this began to become our trademark, which is the way we played defense and it was mainly because we couldn't play offense."
Jill Austin played on that first team as a sophomore, the only losing season for Wesleyan.
"Jan was starting out and we all were starting out," Austin said. "We had to persevere through it. It was a growing year for sure."
Austin, now 29, married and a stay-at-home mom, missed playing for a state championship by one season, but her awe of what Wesleyan is does not equate to surprise. In her three years playing for Azar, she saw her coach's determination cascade through the rising program.
"It was definitely starting to get to where it is when I left," Brown said. "I wasn't in shock because Jan was so determined. Even with our (team) -- we had a couple of talented people on the team -- but she never let us quit."
"I'd go back and do that 10,000 times," Azar says now. "They are what laid the foundation because they worked hard and they were committed and their families were committed."
Commitment started at the top.
Commitment and effort only take any team so far. Eventually, in sports, teams need talent. And as Jill Austin walked out of Wesleyan with a diploma and headed for college at Georgia, Nikki Luckhurst walked in.
"God was very good to us early on in bringing us some people who made it possible for (Azar) to achieve success earlier than she would have otherwise," headmaster Zach Young said. "Nikki (Luckhurst) came in the late part of the century and is still the best player we've ever had."
In Luckhurst's first season, Wesleyan played for the state championship. Her second season, 2002, the future Tulane and Great Britain national team player led the Wolves to the school's first state basketball title.
Luckhurst didn't know much of Azar or the program when she and her sister transferred to Wesleyan from Hebron. Her parents initiated the change. But Luckhurst immediately clicked with Azar's style and even now, admits to feeling chills when she talks of her high school games.
"I guess I am kind of the same as her. I am pretty intense," Luckhurst said. "For me, I loved it.
"The thing with Coach Azar, she was there when they weren't great. She's kept that tenacious attitude. That is the cool thing that I always admired about Coach Azar, no matter what the score was, we were pressing, we were going hard."
Now, that trickles down to every grade.
From Jill Austin and that first team to Nikki Luckhurst and the first championship to now Georgia's Anne Marie Armstrong and Wake Forest's Erin Hall, the winning built on itself.
There are former players who now coach like Nichole Dixon (who played for Azar at Macon's Mount de Sales), Mary Stephenson, Anna Sheppard, Carolyn Whitney and Sara Goodkind. The team takes outings to watch Hall and Armstrong play and the two college players remember looking up the girls in front of them.
"Everyone knows each other and the younger kids, you try to be a role model for them like when you were in middle school how the high school athletes were for you," Armstrong said. "I think it's important just the sense of community within Wesleyan is really important. I think it's one of the reasons Wesleyan thrives."
Azar substitutes community with family.
It's why she wants former players involved. It's why she drags her players to college games. She knows down through the youngest grades who plays basketball. In her office there is a picture of Grace Leah Baughn, one of the first basketball players to attend school K through 12 at Wesleyan and who won four state basketball titles. Baughn is in elementary school in the photo.
"Look how cute she is," Azar says as she looks at the picture. There was no sign in the photo of Baughn's pending success, unless you consider her future coach standing next to her.
Wesleyan offers the chance for those unique moments and Azar capitalizes on that opportunity. She watches all the teams in her program at least once every other week. She shows up Saturday mornings after long varsity Friday nights to watch fifth-grade games. Every grade plays defense and presses. Every team learns the expectations from the first day. And everyone sees the success. Last year's team took last year's state championship trophy down to the school's kindergarten classes to share in the celebration.
"It also allows me to know the girls. Once they leave, they are a part of our family," Azar said. "People are going to leave a basketball team, but they aren't going to leave their family."
Azar insists Wesleyan's success does not stem solely from her approach or philosophy. She credits her players and her assistants and the school's choice to play at the highest level from the start. But it all swirls back to the fiery, tireless, redhead who demands as much from herself as her players, who had the belief in herself to take a job nobody wanted and build a dream. She doesn't make plans for championship weekend anymore. She doesn't scrounge for practice times. But she's there, every day, working.
Earlier this year, Wesleyan held a reunion for the first girls team and the first state championship team with plenty of former players, including Austin and Luckhurst, returning and telling stories of the days of partially-obscured views and standing fans.
"It was good for our girls here to hear where it all began," Azar said. "We used to practice in one gym. We'd practice at 6 in the morning. It was good for them to hear that this whole thing that is going on here started from somewhere. That was fun."