OAKWOOD — It’s 10 minutes before practice on a chilly Tuesday. Seniors Macy Passmore and Avery Prather and junior Anna Mckendree, along with the rest of the West Hall girls basketball team, have just finished watching tape of possible opponents in the upcoming Class AAAA girls tournament.
The team is preparing to take on Troup County at home on Friday in the opening round.
Passmore, Prather and Mckendree are standing in coach Bryan Richerson’s office -- arms crossed, serious looks on their faces, looking somewhat like a historical depiction of the Three Musketeers.
Until they start interacting.
The smiling, giggling, and whispering between each other as they prepare to talk about their team’s future fortunes is a quick reminder that they are, in fact, typical teenagers. Yet there is little that is average about this trio, which is the leading force on one of the top teams in Class AAAA -- one that is ready to prove that 2016’s march to the Class AAA quarterfinals was no fluke.
The Lady Spartans (22-5) are tied for the fourth-most wins and the fifth-best winning percentage (.815) in Class AAAA. They have won 22 of their last 24 -- their only losses in that span were to Class AAAAA No. 1 Buford and to Class AAAAA No. 3 Flowery Branch. They are coming off a second straight region title, this time in 7-AAAA.
After some awkward glances among each other, Passmore was the first to respond: “We’re all close friends on this team, and we have a lot of fun together,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of good chemistry on this team.”
Passmore was responding to what she thought was the secret to their success. She has played the straight-man to Mckendree’s center-stage theatrics for the past two years. But she has star power of her own, doing a little bit of everything in averaging 13.2 points per game, 7.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 3.0 steals. Her biggest role, however, may be finding an open Mckendree as often as possible.
Mckendree, recently named the Region 7-AAAA Player of the Year, is one of the more dynamic scorers in northeast Georgia and has the reputation of shooting as soon as she steps off the bus. She is every team’s primary defensive focus. She averages 19.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 3.4 steals.
Meanwhile, Prather, is a quiet, measured presence. Known for her tenacious defense, she has also come out of her offensive shell over the past month, making the Lady Spartans a more balanced team, and she could be the X-factor the Lady Spartans have been looking for.
“I felt I needed to step up some more on offense,” Prather offered with a smile after a consultation with Mckendree and Passmore.
The 5-foot-1 guard, however, was being modest. She has been a major catalyst down the stretch, scoring 12 points a game over their past six contests -- almost double her season average -- to go with 2.6 assists and 3.0 steals a game.
And they aren’t the only West Hall players to make an impact. Seniors Megan English and Danielle Hinkleman round out the starters and supply the down-and-dirty inside play with plenty of defense, rebounding, and additional offensive options for Richerson to choose from.
“I feel we are a lot more dangerous as a team this year,” Richerson said. “Avery has stepped up (offensively), Macy and Megan both have been more aggressive on the offensive end, and when Anna is on she’s as good a scorer as anybody out there. We have more options to go too, which makes us harder to guard.”
The trio huddled again after another question on how this team is different from last year’s group.
The 2015-16 edition of the Lady Spartans surprised many around the area first by winning a tough Region 7-AAA over the likes of playoff stalwarts East Hall and Dawson County. They knocked off a talented Washington County team in the second round, and then took eventual state runner-up Jackson-Atlanta to the wire in the quarterfinals -- a game they trailed by 30 early on only to come back and tie the game before running out of gas and losing by 12 in the final minutes.
“We had a really slow start for some reason,” Mckendree offered as an explanation. “We fought hard to come back but it didn’t go our way at the end. We felt we were pretty good. I don’t know what other (teams) thought about us.”
Most area fans by now know Mckendree by a beast-mode-like scowl. It is a look that can be intimidating to opponents. For her teammates, however, it’s one that they enjoy trying to bring out.
“Do I have a look? Really?” Mckendree said with a quizzical stare towards her teammates. “I just focus on the game. I just want to win. I try to do whatever I can to help the team.”
“Beast-mode... I never thought of it like that,” a chuckling Passmore said of the suggestion. “It’s an intense look but we see it as just her being focused. But when she gets in that zone we just try to get her the ball. It’s fun to watch when she gets hot.”
Richerson said he can sense the team feeding off of Mckendree when she does get going.
“They definitely do,” he said. “They have a lot of confidence in her. But everyone has a role and I think that’s what makes this such a good team. They play their roles well and no one seems to worry about who is doing what as long as the team is winning.”
That attitude explains a lot as to the success of this group over the past two seasons. Players graduate every year and Passmore said the current seniors tried to sponge off of last year’s group.
“They showed us a lot and we have tried to keep that going this year,” Passmore said. “A team needs leaders, and we learned how to lead from them. Now we’re trying to pass it on to the juniors and the younger players.”
While no one will admit it publically, this could be the Lady Spartans best-ever chance to make a run at a state title. They have a dynamic scorer, stellar supporting cast, defensive stoppers, and the always-underrated chemistry.
But, after last year’s heartbreaking end, they now feel they have the experience and motivation that may be the final pieces of the puzzle. However, before answering, the trio once again held a quick committee meeting.
“I have thought about it being my last game, especially now that we’re at the playoffs,” Passmore offered up. “I think that is driving us to want to do everything we can to win.”
Prather was a little more subdued.
“I haven’t given it too much thought but I’m not ready to quit playing yet,” she said. “I’m just going to give it my all to do the best I can for the team.”
As a junior, Mckendree acknowledged that she will get another crack next season no matter what happens over the next month. But she admitted that they all feel this is the year. And they understand the urgency of it all.
“I’m not really thinking of next year,” she said. “Last year’s finish is motivating us. We feel like if we had started better we would have beaten (Jackson) and maybe we get to the finals.
“But I don’t think any of us are feeling any extra pressure right now. I personally think this is our year. This is a great team and we want to win for each other.”
They all said they haven’t really watched the tape of last year’s loss to Jackson. But Richerson said what they learned from that game may be the key.
“Last year was new for all of us. We didn’t really know how to handle certain situations,” he said. “We got the experience we needed from last year and it has carried over this year.
“You have to learn how to win in the playoffs. Now I believe we know how to do that.”
Beginning on Friday, we’ll all get to see just how far they can take that belief.
WEST HALL GIRLS vs. TROUP COUNTY
- WHAT: Class AAAA first round basketball playoff game
- WHERE: The Silverdome, Oakwood
- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
- WEST HALL: 22-5, Region 7-AAAA champion
- TROUP: 14-11, fourth seed from Region 5-AAAA
- WINNER FACES: Columbus vs. Burke County winner in second round