GAINESVILLE -- The 2012-13 basketball season proved far from kind to the Gainesville High girls.
At 8-16 it was one of the worst records the Lady Red Elephants suffered through in decades. Yet even in the midst of that disappointment a spark and hope for the future was always close at hand -- in fact it was evident every day in practice.
As the rest of Hall County witnessed on Saturday, that future is now.
Thanks in large part to four freshmen that starred for Gainesville's junior varsity last season, the Lady Red Elephants captured their first Lanierland crown since 2008 over the weekend -- with first-year varsity standout Taylor Hawks earning MVP honors.
"I knew those freshmen would make us stronger, and they have made the entire team better because they work so hard, and they push their teammates to be better," said Gainesville coach Brenda Hill-Gilmore, who also saw her team match last year's win total in just nine games played in the 57-50 victory over North Hall. "They're a very gifted group, and they love basketball. They live it, eat it, sleep it, and they take pride in wanting to be the best."
It is little wonder then that the group, which also features upperclassmen like Paisley Lee, Kabree Randolph and Tamia Rucker, is intent on returning the Lady Red Elephants to the lofty standards that became the norm for Gainesville in the 1990s and into the new millennium.
"We're trying to get the program back to where it used to be," said Hill-Gilmore of a team that has won four state championships (1994, 2001, 2003-04) and had a 14-season state tournament streak going from 1997-2010 -- halting in former coach Mason Hill's final season in charge. Hill-Gilmore got the Lady Red Elephants back to the postseason in 2012, her first campaign in charge, but after missing out last year, both Hill-Gilmore and her charges are focused on re-establishing the Gainesville as a power.
"It's a big job trying to fill (former coach) Manson Hill's shoes, but we want to keep getting better and let our play speak for itself," Hill-Gilmore said.
Saturday's Lanierland success was a big step in that direction, though Hill-Gilmore notes that her precocious squad still has plenty of room for improvement.
"We have some things to work on, like coming to play at a high level of intensity for a long period of time every night," Hill-Gilmore said. "In junior varsity you don't always have to go hard, but at the varsity level you have to have that intensity all the time."
Hill-Gilmore adds that her young players' appetite is vast, however, and there is little concern that Hawks, Tanai Watson, Bessie Winston and Cori Griffith are taking each lesson to heart.
"They don't like losing," Hill-Gilmore said of her freshman class. "They come to play. They're good kids and 'A' and 'B' students, but when they get on the court they focus only on what it's going to take to get the win. And that's trickled down to the other players on the team."
That attitude was certainly obvious in Hawks' play on Saturday, as the point guard poured in a game-high 32 points to go with six rebounds, four assists, and five steals. Yet it went far beyond the stats for Hawks, who kept a cool head in directing the Gainesville offense and answered a number of Lady Trojans baskets with points or steals to keep North Hall at bay.
"Taylor has a high basketball IQ; she's everything you look for in a point guard," Hill-Gilmore said. "She knows where the ball needs to go, and she wants to get her teammates involved. But, at the same time, if we need scoring she can step up and give that. We saw that Saturday; it was a breakout moment for her. But she doesn't need to score like that to have a big influence on the game. I already allow her to call plays and defenses, and she'll step up and say something to her teammates too if she feels she needs to."
Meanwhile, Watson has developed into a defensive stopper that Hill-Gilmore is already sticking on opposing teams' best scorers, while Winston is a tremendous shooter, and Griffith is developing into an all-around threat.
"Those four have changed the program," Hill-Gilmore said.
Gainesville (8-1) has also been aided by the return of Lee and sophomore Breana Fair from ACL injuries that derailed their 2012-13 campaigns. Their presence, along with others such as Kaysey Smith, have helped the Lady Red Elephants' quick turnaround, making them an athletic, quick team that can score in bunches -- either by forcing turnovers and scoring in transition or simply by running their offense and finding openings in the half-court.
"We just want to be prepared to do what we have to do to be successful," Hill-Gilmore said.
Gainesville knows that ultimate success is still more than half a season away, but the Lady Red Elephants hope to show they are continuing to grow after the Christmas break, when they -- along with the Gainesville boys -- play host to the Big Red Shootout Dec. 26-28.
Also playing will be North Hall, Franklin County, Jackson County, Central Gwinnett, Chattahoochee and state power Buford.
"It's not going to be easy but our goal is to win it," Hill-Gilmore said. "We're excited about the way things are going. But we also know we're still building something."
It's not a mindset that comes normal to most young teams, but then again, this not your average young team.