The final rounds of the state tournament in Macon pass quickly. As soon as one game ends the next teams take the court for a final bit of practice. The door cards in front of the locker rooms are updated with the next occupant even as the previous team files out.
None of it leaves much time for reflection.
Still, like most teams after a season-ending loss, the North Hall girls took their time. Coach Kristi House said that even the underclassmen had tears in their eyes as six-player strong senior class exited the court for the final time in their high school careers.
The Lady Trojans, ranked No. 3 in the end-of-the-year poll, were one of the tournament’s Cinderella teams. They entered the tournament unranked, beat a pair of top-10 teams in Carrollton and Allatoona and returned to Macon for the first time since 1991 not yet satisfied. They knew they could do this.
“Nobody else thought so, but those girls in the locker room knew we could get here,” House said after the semifinal loss to then-undefeated and defending champions Washington County.
Senior guard Mary Kate Rushton was the first to emerge from the locker room.
“With five minutes left I thought we were going to win,” she said.
Earlier in the state tournament senior point guard Taylor Swoszowski said that the goal for this group of seniors was to play in the state championship game. None of the players had gotten out of the first round in the three years prior, but this crop of seniors was determined. When it was all said and done, with another game beginning and the season at an end, the North Hall Lady Trojans had exceeded everybody’s expectations — everybody’s but their own.
Freshman Sydney Cleveland said after the quarterfinal win that she enjoyed being able to play with such a talented senior class. She was one of the few underclassmen to play a big role throughout the state tournament, and now she’ll be a key piece for the Lady Trojans next year, as the team tries to replace an entire starting lineup of departed seniors.
The other local team that went on a surprising run, the Dawson County boys, is in a very different situation. The Tigers will have the entire starting lineup returning next year from a team that rarely looked to its bench.
Coach Thad Burgess admitted, however, that his squad’s run from a No. 3 seed in the Region 8-AA tournament to a region championship, to the quarterfinals in Dalton will be hard to repeat, even with all the same faces.
The Tigers aren’t the only successful team that will be returning all, or nearly all, of the same group next season.
Also on the boys side, North Hall returns much of its talent from a state tournament team, including leading scorer Ebo Smith, shooting guard Griffin Olson and post Adam Kelly. The Trojans will have to make up for the loss of forward Imani Cross and Preston Smith, another one of the team’s top scorers.
Another local team that will have the pieces back to make a run next year is defending Lanierland champion Gainesville, which missed state by a game last season. Top scorers Shaquan Cantrell and Deshaun Watson return, as does forward Chase England, among others. The Red Elephants will have to replace dynamic point guard Lance White. Junior point guard Tray Harrison is a possibility to fill that role.
There are a few other boys state tournament teams that should be contenders once again despite losing a key player.
East Hall loses leading scorer J.C. Hampton, along with forwards Chris Orr and T.D. Teasley, but should still be able to score with rising seniors Brian Edwards and Hayden Chapman. Each averaged double-digit points per game last season.
Lakeview Academy loses one of two leading scorers in guard Austin Pearson, but returns the other in forward Austin Montgomery along with enough pieces to make another state tournament run.
On the girls side state runner-up Buford is in a similar position. The Lady Wolves return all three leading scorers in Kaela Davis, Kristina Nelson and MacKenzie Darrah (all three are Division-I prospects), but will have to move on without point guard Andraya Carter, the team’s leader who is now headed to Tennessee after winning three state titles and two Class AA Player of the Year Awards.
The East Hall girls, who lost in the second round by one point to eventual state champions Lovett, will be losing a pair of key players and team leaders in leading scorers Jasmine Jenkins and Morgan Jackson, both of which have Division I schools to play at next season. Both are the kind of players who can’t be replaced, but the Lady Vikings displayed a glimpse of the future in freshman Chelsea Dale, who led the team in scoring and tied a school record with seven 3-pointers in East Hall’s state tournament win over Dade County.
The Gainesville girls, who returned to the state tournament after a one-year absence under new coach Brenda Hill-Gilmore, also lose a key player in leading scorer Rebecca Webster, along with Hunter Pugh. A strong returning frontcourt that includes rising seniors Anna Walker and Angel Mickle should keep Gainesville in the hunt.
For the Chestatee girls, the future was also the present last season for a team that had no seniors on the roster. Rising senior Maegan Kenimer and rising junior Emily Crain will look to lead the Lady War Eagles back to the second round of the playoffs again next season.
It was a senior-led North Hall girls team that took the subregion crown from Chestatee in the 2011-2012 season. Now an improving Lady War Eagles team could be poised to get it back.