It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.
It’s a phrase that is tossed around casually in the world of sports, the regularity of its use falling somewhere between “taking it one game at a time” and “playing our game.”
But to the Flowery Branch girls basketball team and coach Hazel Hall, it’s more than that.
It’s a call to action.
“We don’t worry so much about what happens early in the season,” Hall said. “Our focus is on winning subregion games. We know that’s how we get into the state tournament, and that’s where we want to be.”
So far, so good.
The Lady Falcons (11-7, 3-1 Region 8-AAAA North) started out slow this season, losing five of their first nine games. Since then, they have reeled off seven wins in nine games, including three in a row to open subregion play before losing to Clarke Central on Tuesday.
They will host Winder-Barrow at 7 p.m. tonight.
It’s a track that reflects Flowery Branch’s season a year ago in which the team won just seven regular-season games before coming alive to reach the region tournament championship game (where they fell to Clarke Central) and advance to state.
This year, the transformation took place early, however, and has made the Lady Falcons a force to be reckoned with.
“I think they’ve matured since last year,” Hall said. “We didn’t have any seniors last year, and everyone’s a year older now. That always helps.”
Cara Chilton, who scored 13 points in the team’s first subregion loss at Clarke Central, said that their experience coming alive in the region late last season has helped give them confidence to play at a high level this year.
“We knew after last year that we had the ability to win region games — any games really,” she said.
And the improvement from last year’s squad, Chilton said, has been obvious.
“We can watch film from last year, and we’re all a little shocked to see the team we were compared with the team we are this year,” she said.
It starts with experience.
Being another year older and, consequently, another year wiser has helped the team come together in ways it would not have done a season ago.
“It’s a special group,” Hall said. “They’re all very competitive and they want to do well and get the job done. They don’t care who does it. There’s no jealousy; they just want to get the job done.”
Chilton pointed out the team’s chemistry as well, noting that its ability to come together this year has played a major role in helping it succeed.
“It’s chemistry,” she said. “I think we have better chemistry than most teams. We’re athletic and strong on the court, but I think we get along better than most teams.”
A rare trait, Hall said, for high school girls.
The next step in the team’s improvement is in the effort given by each player on a daily basis.
Hall said that, while the team is talented, it doesn’t have the natural athleticism of some other teams.
“We don’t have a lot of size, but we do have girls that are pretty skilled,” she said. “I think the biggest thing, though, is that they are very competitive, which makes them play very hard. We don’t have a choice. We have to do that.”
And, of course, having a full roster helps as well.
In the first half of the season, the team was missing a couple of players due to injuries. Dani Lacko had been sick and battling a slight knee injury, while Sky Cason had a torn ligament in her hand.
With a full roster the team has better depth. The resulting success has been undeniable.
“We tried to hang on through the injuries as best we could,” Hall said, “and now we’re just focused on our subregion schedule.”
Now, the team has its sights set on reaching new heights. It has never advanced past the Sweet 16 in the state tournament, something Hall said she’d like to see the team do at some point.
For now, however, she wants to play well in the subregion and give itself a chance at state when the time comes.
“I think we have to get to a point where everyone is playing their best basketball,” Hall said. “If that’s possible. It’s very rare to have everyone click at the same time.”
Chilton said the team wasn’t worried about goals right now.
“We don’t worry about that, really,” she said. “We just want to win, and we need to win. We can’t take any team we play for granted. We can’t assume that just because we’ve won lately, that we can do that every game. We’ve just got to be prepared.”