I spent the past week (and every Tuesday and Friday of the past three months) watching Georgia high school basketball. And I loved every minute of it.
The Region 5-AAAA tournament wrapped up Saturday at Lithia Springs High School in Douglas County. It lasted all week. The semis and the finals were as exciting as any sporting event I've ever attended: back and forth battles, seemingly impossible comebacks, herculean individual efforts and a half court buzzer-beating game winner--all in front of a raucous crowd of Douglas, South Fulton and Fayette County parents, fans and players. Every dunk blew the roof off the building. Every clutch three sent the fans into a frenzy. My alma mater, Fayette County High School, won it all in both the boys and girls brackets. Three other local teams punched their tickets to the state tournament as well: the Sandy Creek boys and girls and the McIntosh boys.
But, it was the Fayette County Lady Tigers that really stood out. Coached by my former track mentor and friend John Strickland, the Lady Tigers record now sits at 27-0. USA Today currently ranks them 18th nationally.
Watching The Lady Tigers on the court is like popping in an instructional tape on how to play hoops. Senior leader Tessah Holt handles the ball and runs the floor as well as any high school athlete I've ever seen. Junior forwards Sasha Sims and Anma Onyeuku both possess tremendous basketball IQs, garnered from years of hard work and practice. Both forwards move quicker than their counterparts on other teams. Both know exactly where they are on the court at all times. The only difference between the two: Onyeuku is a better catch and shoot scorer. Sims is the better shot blocker. A trio of senior guards round out the main rotation: Dekota Walton, Chasity Welch and Areille Register. Welch, a two sport star (she'll play softball in college), leads the team in steals. Walton is a three point specialist and Register plays the role of shutdown perimeter defender.
Fayette won the championship Saturday by handing Mays its second loss of the season. The Lady Raiders of Mays are ranked second in the state of Georgia and have lost only twice this year--both times to Fayette County. In the semis, Douglas County pushed Fayette to the brink. With the score tied at 47 and only three seconds showing on the game clock, Tessah Holt took the inbound pass, sprinted toward the middle of the court and fired away as the buzzer sounded. As soon as the ball left her hands there was no doubt: nothing but net.
Teammates mobbed Holt at half court. The fans either screamed in jubilation or stared wide-eyed in complete disbelief.
Fayette County has become a bit of a local basketball dynasty. Saturday’s win gave the Lady Tigers their third region championship in as many years. In 2008, both Fayette teams--girls and boys--advanced all the way to the AAAA state championship games. Coming off the most successful year in the program's history, the Lady Tigers upped the ante this season.
For the players and coaches to realize their dreams, the winning trend must continue. Fayette County has never captured a state championship. I think that this will be the year.
This post is partly to to gush about my local Fayetteville stars, but its more than that.
The underlying point is that even in the age of performance enhancing drugs, multi-million dollar contracts, $80 tickets and college recruiting wars; sports remain relevant. And the next great performance is likely only a few miles away.
There's a basketball or baseball or softball team in your area that is out there winning games or at least inspiring through intense effort. Tickets to sporting events at your local high school don't cost more than a few dollars. You can still buy a hot dog at the concession stand for a buck fifty--the profit going to support the band boosters or the cheerleading squad.
Get involved. Go to some games. Read the recaps in your local papers. Your reward--as they say in the commercials-- is priceless: a real sense of community; a connection to the generations of tomorrow; a chance to scream and jump around for the kids down the street.
Basketball state tournaments are now tipping off nationwide. A state title is on the line in every state, across all classifications. Check it out. Bring your family. You won't be disappointed.
(I took the photo at Fayette County High School a couple of weeks ago when the undefeated Lady Tigers (27-0) took on the then undefeated Mays Lady Raiders (25-2) in the regular season finale. Fayette won 73-50. The gym was packed--a standing room only crowd, as the picture clearly shows... A standing room only crowd for a regular season high school girls basketball game. How can that not warm the heart of everyone with a daughter or neice or granddaughter involved in youth sports?)