For Sydney Cleveland, winning a national championship is an honor that no one can ever take away.
It’s a symbol of all the work and bumps along the way for the YBOA North Georgia Elite freshman squad that took the national title recently in Orlando, Fla.
“It’s just amazing to win a national championship,” said Cleveland, a rising sophomore at North Hall High. “No words can describe what it feels like to win a national championship.”
Comprised of local high school girls going into their sophomore year of high school, North Georgia Elite rolled through the nationals with four victories, including a win against a Florida Comets squad that entered the game 56-2 on the season.
The Elite also knocked off a pair of squads from Charlotte, N.C., to advance to the title game. In the championship, North Georgia outlasted the Catawba (S.C.) Chaos.
Players on the squad were from North Hall, Flowery Branch, Banks County, Habersham Central, Lakeview Academy, White County and Mill Creek. Kaitlyn Duncan, a rising sophomore at Banks County High, earned the title of tournament MVP.
“It’s a great honor to say we’re national champs,” Duncan said. “It’s all because of the defense we played. We just focus on being intense the entire game.”
The North Georgia Elite didn’t just have top-quality high schools from the area, they also had a coach, Chezley Watson, with a long track record of success as a standout player during his days on the basketball court at East Hall High. He went on to play in college at the University of Virginia.
“It was an unbelievable team to be able to coach,” Watson said. “The entire process of coaching this team was so special.”
And Watson had a unique philosophy for getting a group of girls ready for national competition. All season during weekend tournaments, Watson had the group play up against girls on teams made up primarily of juniors and seniors. Duncan says that the age difference helped her team get acclimated to a faster pace.
“They took their lumps along the way, but kept battling,” Watson said.
Duncan says older players at this level of travel basketball are also going to play at a significantly higher tempo.
“Every time you make a pass, you have to make sure it is on point,” said Duncan, who has trained with Watson since she was 10.
Playing up in age groups made it challenging for the North Georgia Elite during the seven weeks of tournament games. They lost six straight before picking up that first win in a tournament in Panama City Beach, Fla., on Memorial Day weekend.
“I think new scenery helped the girls,” Watson said. “The momentum really started to shift in their favor and they started to notice how good they really were.”
After picking up that first tournament win, North Georgia caught fire. After winning in Florida, the Elite cruised to a state title, beating their own B team (rising ninth grade squad) for the state title.