Dawson County senior Carly Gilreath had a couple of big goals to accomplish in her final high school season.
First, she wanted to surpass 1,000 points for her career, something she did back in December in a win over Hoke’s Bluff, Ala. in the Battle of the States tournament in Hiawassee.
Then she wanted to help lead her team to the postseason for the first time since she’d been at the school.
She did that, and then turned an already great senior year into one for the ages, leading the Lady Tigers all the way to the Class AAA state championship game.
“This year has definitely been our most exciting year since we’ve been in high school,” she said. “As a senior, I wouldn’t want to go out any other way.”
The four-year starter and point guard for the balanced Dawson County team played a huge part in the run to the finals, averaging 15.6 points, 2.6 assists and two steals per game for the 27-6 campaign. But it was her leadership that might have meant the most.
“She has been the floor leader during this whole building process,” Dawson County coach Steve Sweat said. “She’s the one I pretty much go through to get stuff done on the court and she has handled that really well, as good as any I’ve ever had.”
For her efforts in leading the team to the state final, Gilreath is The Times Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
Sweat didn’t quite know what he was getting when he threw Gilreath in as the starting point guard four years ago, but he said it wasn’t too long before he saw her potential.
“Once we realized what she could do, we weren’t worried,” he said.
While Gilreath may have been new to high school basketball at that point, she’s played the sport ever since she could play in a league, she said.
When she reached high school not only was she starting on varsity right off the bat, but she joined the Atlanta Lady Celtics AAU travel team to stay sharp in the offseason, a decision she said has had a huge impact on her improvement as a player.
“I’ve traveled all over the country every summer to play AAU basketball, and it’s really paid off for me,” she said. “It makes a huge difference. You come into basketball season and you’re already in shape, you’ve already been playing.”
Gilreath used that extra work to help her become more of a complete player as well. She said that in middle school her strength was just in driving to the basket, but that during her early high school years she stretched out her range to beyond the 3-point arc, making her even more dangerous.
And in her senior season, the team around had gotten to the point where she was far from the only offensive weapon. Kacie and Karlie Bearden were there to help on the perimeter, with Allie Costley, Ashley Parker and Dawson County sophomore Sheyenne Seabolt, at 14.1 points per game and 8.2 rebounds per game the No. 2 offensive threat, patrolling the paint.
“We knew this would be our year,” Gilreath said. “We didn’t have the best seasons before, but coming into this year with the players we had, we knew this was our year. We made the best with what we had, and we couldn’t have gone any further than what we did.
“But if you would have asked me at the beginning of the year that I would be in the state championship, I wouldn’t have said that.”
In the end though, Gilreath had a large hand in making the run happen.
She scored 17 points in the first round of the state tournament and 11 in the second round, a key come-from-behind win over North Oconee. In the third round against Decatur she scored just eight points, but seven of those in a row to rally the Lady Tigers after they had fallen behind early.
In the semifinals against Southwest-Macon in Savannah, Gilreath made sure there would be no need to rally, hitting two quick 3-pointers to take the early lead and five treys total for a 24-point night to help lead Dawson County to the state finals for the first time since 1991. Gilreath finished with 14 points in the championship game loss to St. Pius X, 77-55, in Macon.
Sweat said one of the key ways his southpaw point guard helped the run continue was her confidence.
“When they realized that we could win in the playoffs, that’s when we knew we could go far,” Sweat said. “Carly’s leadership in getting that attitude onto the floor was a big part of that.”
The longtime coach added that he was able to get many of his points through to the team through Gilreath, who he said is as well liked within the program as she is around the school.
And when she caught fire on the court, oftentimes in key situations, she rose the level of the team as a whole.
“She’s the kind of player that makes a coach look good,” Sweat said. “I think she was able to do some things others can’t do, her skill level was great, she handled herself well in tight moments, and she looked the same at the end of the game as at the beginning of the game, which is a big thing.
“Carly is one of the best all around student athletes that I think I’ve had since I’ve been coaching.”
Now Gilreath looks to make the same impact at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, where she is headed on a basketball scholarship after graduation.
She’s looking for the Lady Tigers to continue right where they left off.
“I would’ve liked to have won, but making it to the state championship was just an unbelievable experience,” she said. “Even though I won’t be there, I hope they go again.”