Chestatee coach Web Daniel knew this year could be a special one; he could see it coming.
Last year’s team won 19 games and advanced to the second round of the state tournament without a senior on the roster.
This year Daniel envisioned a roster 10-deep with talented, experienced players around a strong senior core. Then two of last year’s players decided not to return, and then back-up center Danielle Stephens tore her meniscus earlier this season, putting her out of commission the rest of the season.
Even with that adversity, it could still be that dream year Daniel envisioned.
“We have the pieces there, but the bench is short,” he said. “We’re pretty much playing eight right now, but I would like to play 10.”
Lately he’s seen the Lady War Eagles run ahead to big leads, but fade in the second half due to that lack of depth, which is why he’s looking to get some of his younger players more minutes to be able to step up when needed.
So far, the players needed have been stepping up, and the team has been rolling along. Chestatee improved to 3-0 in Region 8-AAAA — 15-3 overall — with a 59-57 win against fellow region championship favorite Madison County on Tuesday.
“This year’s been kind of surprising,” Daniel said. “There are a lot of good players in the school that I could have on the team who aren’t playing, so I thought we’d be deeper, but the girls are stepping up.”
It starts with the six-player strong senior class, including the top three scorers in Maegan Kenimer (14 points, 8 rebounds per game), Erin Clifford (10 ppg.) and Sam Brown (8 ppg.). It was Brown who hit the winning shot to take down the Lady Red Raiders.
Clifford remembers many of them playing together in middle school, where the team nearly won the Hall County Championship, finishing second.
“We weren’t the best team to come through, but we were pretty good,” she said.
Many of them, including Clifford, are in their third year starting on varsity, making the postseason each of the past two years. Each time the Lady War Eagles have lost in the second round.
This year, the seniors are trying to prove that this team is different from the previous ones. At the beginning of the season, the team set down three goals: Win Lanierland, win region and advance past the second round.
They accomplished the first goal — for the first time in program history — and the close win over Madison County is a good sign for being able to accomplish the second when the region tournament comes.
Kenimer is excited with how well the Lady War Eagles have played this season.
“I think we’ve had a great start to the season. We made school history by winning the first Lanierland championship, we broke the school record for the longest winning streak, and I think we’re going to finish strong too,” she said. “Last year we were younger, this year we have six seniors and we all just want to go far.
“We set our goals super early, and we have to prove to ourselves that we can go super far at state. Everybody’s just wanting it this year, wanting it super bad.”
What makes this team able to go after such goals is that the contributions are coming from more than the top seniors.
There are the players who have stepped into the spotlight this season, like junior point guard Bridgette Kelly.
“She’s stepped up big time for us,” Daniel said.
Kelly started last season and played some as a freshman, but has become a key cog in the Lady War Eagles’ machine this season, averaging seven points per game in addition to setting up an offense that has become more balanced this season with the talent of the guards. Clifford said that in previous years it had been more of a forward-centric offense.
“It’s not all about post play,” Clifford said. “Maegan is a huge factor, but it’s more of a mixture between the guards and the post now.”
Clifford also mentioned sophomore Tyler Bennett and junior Deanna Bradbury as two other younger players who have helped boost the team.
There’s still much work to be done, however.
Daniel said his squad could very well see the Lady Red Raiders again in the region tournament championship game.
“I told the girls, we still need to beat them in the region championship when it matters most,” he said.
To temper even more any celebration for defeating one of the region’s top contenders, Chestatee travels to Covington on Friday to play the other in the region’s trio of likely title contenders — Eastside.
“We know that (Madison County) was a tough competitor, but we also have to beat Eastside too,” Clifford said. “But it was a big game to win, it gave us the confidence for Friday.”
That confidence doesn’t look to disappear anytime soon as long as the Lady War Eagles’ core keeps it up. Because they know this is their final chance to win region, and they’re final chance to get past Round 2 in the state tournament.
Not having as much depth as they would’ve liked has not dampened the mood.
“We have a young sophomore who stepped it up this year, and with returning starters it hasn’t been a big difference,” Clifford said. “Yes, we did need them, but it wasn’t really a damper on our year. Some people have stepped up.
“We want to go out with a bang. We want to prove that we’re not that same team, and we want to keep that legacy going.”
“This year is our last year,” Kenimer added. “If we can’t get it this year it won’t happen for us again.”