The North Hall girls basketball team reached Macon the day before they were set to play in the state semifinals against defending Class AAA state champs Washington County.
As they were watching Buford skate by Brooks County to a clinch a spot in the title game, Lady Trojans coach Kristi House said it hit them: They were in the final four.
House, who graduated from North Hall in 1991, had come full circle.
Two decades after leading the Lady Trojans to the girls basketball state semifinals as a senior, House was back as a coach to guide the senior-led Lady Trojans (24-8) to their first region championship and state semifinals appearance since that 1991 season.
For her efforts, House is The Times Girls Basketball Coach of the Year.
“It was definitely extra special for coach House to relive everything,” said North Hall senior Taylor Swoszowski, one of the team’s six upperclassmen. “It was definitely sweet for her to be able to relive that through us.”
House was a guard on that ‘91 team and reminded her of this past season’s senior-led unit.
“We played together, we played as hard as we possibly could, and we were all good friends,” she said.
That team won the region and advance to the state semifinals, then in Albany, on the strength of wins over Lakeside-Dekalb and Stockbridge, before falling to Westover in the semifinals.
While the venue was different, House said that the experience was nearly the same, although she admitted that she had far more to worry about returning as a coach.
“The environment was similar,” she said. “It’s a big basketball game, high energy, big crowds.
“Just a special environment.”
It was the environment which she had hoped to see her squad experience, to have the chance for the seniors to go out in style.
“I really wanted these seniors to go out feeling good about the season,” said House, whose Lady Trojans fought Washington County basket for basket until the then undefeated Lady Golden Hawks pulled away late for a 68-52 win.
Like House’s final game as a player, it was a tough semifinal loss.
For the ‘91 team that trip to the semifinals was the last run of a stretch of success through the 1980s, when House said everybody knew the expectations on North Hall girls basketball.
“I had grown up watching the North Hall girls play,” she said. “Players had an expectation of what the program was going to be.”
After that trip to the final four, however, the Lady Trojans couldn’t find that same level of success. House said that, like most successful programs, North Hall went through a lull.
While the program did have some success prior to this season, including a run to the quarterfinals in 2006, it took a deep, talented senior class and a coach with a link to the 1980s run to match the success of two decades prior.
The seniors credit their coach, who took over prior to the 2010-2011 season after spending nearly half a dozen years off and on as an assistant coach under former head coach Bryan Richerson, with the recent success.
It all comes down to the chemistry between the coach and players with last season’s team.
“I call her my second mom,” said senior McKenna Rushton. “We hang out with her all the time and we’re just like a family.
“We’re like her kids.”
It was House’s actual kids that pulled her out of coaching for a time, after she had graduated from West Georgia College and spent time teaching and coaching in Atlanta, where she met her husband.
When she moved back to Hall County she began to help out with the girls teams after a brief stint as an assistant at Johnson, but even when she first took over as an interim head coach at North Hall two seasons ago, she said she hadn’t been planning to take the helm.
Now, though, she is very happy right where she is.
“I do love this place,” House said. “I love the school and I have no plans to leave.”
Instead, House is trying to make sure that this most recent trip back to the semifinals is not a peak, but the beginning of a new run.
“We want to use this run to help us hold on to the tradition we want to keep here,” House said. “We hope to build on this.”