DAWSON -- Now that the monkey's off their back, Terrell Academy's girls don't really have to win another basketball championship for a while.
"We got 30 more years, right?" joked Lady Eagles coach Keith Jones, who finally got the GISA Class A school in Dawson its first girls basketball title last year in Milledgeville.
The girls at Terrell don't want to wait another two or three decades before their next one, though. They might as well make it a yearly tradition. Terrell Academy has been to the finals each of the last three years, losing in the championship game in 2007 and 2008 before last year's title celebration.
The Lady Eagles (16-7) begin their defense of the crown tonight in the first round of the GISA Class A playoffs at Andrew College when they tipoff at 8:30 p.m. against Twiggs Academy, the No. 4 seed from Region 1-A. Terrell Academy, region champs six of the last seven years, are the top seed from powerhouse Region 3-A.
Jones and his players don't expect a repeat to be easy, however.
"Kind of like the old folks say, 'The climb to the top is a little bit easier than it is when you get there,' " Jones said. "As hard as it was to finally win that first one, it's even harder to go and defend the thing."
Just two months ago, it didn't look like Terrell would be considered the favorite to repeat. They were 5-6 at Christmas break before winning 11 of their last 12 games.
"You're walking around with a target on your back every day (as reigning champs)," Jones said. "Early in the year, I don't think we quite understood that."
Of course, that had everything to do with who the Lady Eagles were playing in the first month of the season. Here's just a small dose of their early season opponents: Region 1-A top seed David Emanuel (twice); Region 2-AA No. 2 seed Robert Toombs; Region 3-AAA No. 2 seed Deerfield-Windsor; 25-1 Region 3-AA No. 1 seed Tiftarea Academy (twice); Class AAA Brookwood (twice); and Alabama private school power Glenwood Academy (twice).
And the list goes on.
"I was the genius that put that schedule together," Jones said. "When I made the schedule, I made it as difficult as I could possibly make it, I thought. I proved myself right. But that makes us better I think."
Their only blemish in 2010 -- a 47-41 loss to Crisp Academy -- was avenged in the region title game last week. Three teams from Region 3-A -- Terrell, Crisp and Fullington -- all made the Final Four last year.
And that could be the case again this year.
This will be the Lady Eagles' last year in Class A as well, as GISA realignment will move all Terrell Academy sports, except football, to Class AA next year after the school was over the cutoff by just a handful of students.
With returning all-region juniors Marlee Locke and Millie Foster and sophomore Alex Barfield, who was all-state as a freshman, continuing to improve, the Lady Eagles steamrolled into the state playoffs.
Could these be the best years in the history of Terrell Academy basketball? Jones, in his 11th season as coach, won't go that far.
"We have had some good years," he said. "I will say that. I would like to think success breeds success."
WESTWOOD GIRLS BACK AT STATE
Westwood, the No. 4 seed from Region 3-A, returns to the state playoffs after missing out last year in head coach Jenni Smith's first season. It was the first time in four season the Lady Wildcats had missed the playoffs.
Westwood (13-12) will play Region 1-A No. 1 seed David Emanuel at 7 p.m. tonight at Andrew College in the first round.
Smith just wants her team to finally catch a break after several heart-wrenching losses this season.
"I think we're right there," she said. "We've lost a lot of close ballgames to some good teams. I'd like to beat a good team. (Tonight) would be a good night to do it."
Fullington, the 2009 GISA Class A runner-up and Region 3-A No. 2 seed, beat Westwood at the buzzer twice this season, including once in the region tournament.
Though they're the No. 4 seed, playing the daunting Region 3-A schedule has only prepared the Lady Wildcats for tournament play.
"We're fortunate to be playing the best teams in the state in single A," Smith said.
Terrell Academy's Jones expects Westwood to make some noise in the playoffs.
"Our No. 4 seed Westwood really gave everybody fits in the region this year," he said. "I think our region is going to do well."
Westwood played David Emanuel in a preseason game and lost in the final seconds. The Lady Wildcats have playoff experience with two starting seniors, including all-region returnee Sumner Watson, but also boast upcoming talented sophomores Virginia Vereen and Miller Singleton.