As Lynn Jarrett stepped into her office, she sat down in a chair and let out a sigh.
Her Lady Spartans had just given the third-ranked team in Class AAA all it could handle, and for a program that is going through some tough times, remaining competitive with the best is almost as good as a win.
“I don’t think we handled them,” Jarrett said following the Lady Spartans’ 56-49 loss to Walnut Grove on Thursday. “I could show you all the ice packs and bandages to prove that to you.”
Sure, players like Gia Banks and Miaya Crowder abused the undersized Lady Spartans every time they went up for a rebound, but just because they got pushed around by the players doesn’t mean they were intimidated.
“We talked about battling with them,” Jarrett said. “They haven’t been in a lot of close games.”
Much to the surprise of everyone in the gym, the Lady Warriors certainly were in a close game against West Hall last Tuesday.
Walnut Grove, which reached the state playoffs in its first year of existence last year, is loaded with talent. The Lady Warriors are every bit as good as their undefeated record portrays, yet when they stepped on the court last Thursday, the vast difference in talent and athleticism appeared to have been left in Walton County.
Or maybe it was a sign of things to come. And for a program like West Hall, that time can’t arrive soon enough.
The banners hanging from the ceiling in the gym are a constant reminder of where this program used to be.
Lanierland titles, region championships and state runner-up finishes are embroidered on the banners to show that at one time, more than 10 years ago, the Lady Spartans used to be one of the best teams around.
But that’s not the case anymore.
The opening of Flowery Branch nearly 10 years ago subtracted a large portion of the available athletes, and it’s no coincidence that the Lady Spartans haven’t had a winning season since 2004-05.
“Steve Sweat did a tremendous job here,” Jarrett said of the former coach who is now at Dawson County. “But the number of players coming in just aren’t here any more.”
West Hall only has one senior on its roster in Amber Johnson, the team’s captain, leading scorer and most talented player.
The rest of the roster is filled with four juniors, six sophomores and three freshmen, including Jensen Hall and Maia Booker, who both came up with big shots during the second half against Walnut Grove.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” Jarrett said.
Last Thursday was proof of that.
Obviously overmatched on paper, Jarrett instilled an idea in her players’ minds that made them believe they had a chance to win. They knew the opposition wasn’t going to take them seriously, and with back-to-back 30-point wins, they knew Walnut Grove was confident it could win.
“I told our girls that they were the team that has pressure on them,” Jarrett said. “I told them to battle, go toe-to-toe, and you never know what could happen.”
What happened was another close loss, which was the seventh single-digit defeat this year for the Lady Spartans. None of those previous losses came against a team that could be competing for a region championship, which provides hope for Jarrett and everyone in the program.
“We don’t like to hang on moral victories,” Jarrett said. “But they were supposed to win, we weren’t.”
If West Hall can keep heading in the direction its going, in a few years, that might not be the case.
Jonathan Zopf is a sports writer for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesjzopf.