Lakeview Academy girls basketball coach John Carrick dared to be optimistic when assessing his team's chances for the current season.
"To be honest with you, I told close friends that I thought we might be able to win 10 games this year," the second-year Lady Lions coach said during the Region 8-A tournament at Lakeview Academy.
That prediction would mean a seven-game improvement over the 2010-2011 team's 3-21 campaign.
Turns out, Carrick's estimate was quite conservative.
The Lady Lions are 18-10 and, after a third-place finish in the Region 8-A tournament, are headed to the state tournament for the first time since the 2008-2009 season.
That's already six more wins than the last two seasons combined. The turnaround isn't due to any one player or coach, but a bevy of factors, including another season for guard Taylor Handte to find her shooting touch and Kaylee McClendon's consistent play (12 points in the consolation finals).
Not to mention Carrick's influence in his second year at the program, and a senior transfer from East Hall to take over at point guard.
"He's turned this team around completely," said senior Kelsey Gilbert of Carrick.
Gilbert has certainly been a part of the turnaround from her position at point guard. Playing against George Walton Academy in the semifinals on Friday, Gilbert nearly single-handedly kept Lakeview in the game. The Bulldogs' size and athleticism would eventually win out in the 57-48 decision, but not before the Lady Lions' point guard had tallied 25 points, including 11 straight in the fourth quarter to bring the game back to single digits.
"The kids played their hearts out, especially Gilbert," Carrick said after the game. "That's the best she's played in a six-minute span."
Gilbert has been waiting for the opportunity for awhile now.
"I was really wanting a chance to go to state," Gilbert said. "With this team I knew we had a chance."
Gilbert had played on the junior varsity at East Hall, but transferred to Lakeview Academy prior to her senior season.
As a Lady Lion the senior was able to take a leading role, something she said wouldn't have been very likely to do if she were still at East Hall due to the depth of seniors on the Lady Vikings this season.
"I knew they needed some players, so I just came in ready to help at all costs," Gilbert said. "It's been and great transition for me, and it's been a confidence builder for me and the team."
This was a team that displayed an ability to win from the get-go, beating West Hall 45-43 in the opener and Savannah Country Day 34-33. The Lady Lions have won all nine of their games this season decided by five or fewer points, including a 34-29 win over Athens Academy on Saturday to grab that No. 3 seed going into the state tournament.
Lakeview will play the No. 4 team from Region 7-A, Washington-Wilkes (19-7) in the state tournament preliminary round at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at Lakeview Academy. A win and the Lady Lions would play Region 9-A champions Southwest Atlanta Christian (25-3) in the first round Friday.
However it turns out, the team has already come further than anyone had reason to expect.
"The kids love the experience," Carrick said. "As an old coach it's fun to just watch their happiness.
"I'm very proud of them."
Zac Taylor is a sports writer for The Times. Contact him at email@example.com