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Monroe girls inspired by Deerfield's path to title

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- This time of year, teams will take inspiration anywhere they can find it, so it may not be that surprising to hear Monroe girls basketball coach Cheryl Cheeks giving a little shout out to Deerfield-Windsor.

That's right, the Deerfield-Windsor boys team.

"We read the story in the newspaper about Deerfield-Windsor last week, and how those kids worked so hard in the offseason and how much they wanted to win the state title,'' Cheeks said. "We kind of took their slogan 'Let's get it done.' "

Cheeks made sure every girl on her team read the story in The Herald, and emphasized how the DWS kids worked on their own to get better. Her players not only listened, but were inspired.

Then the Lady Tornadoes shocked just about everyone who follows girls basketball in Georgia. They walked into the Rutland gym, faced the seventh-ranked team in the state, and -- after falling behind by 20 points -- pulled off the biggest upset in the opening round of the state tournament.

How big was it?

The Georgia High School Association's Web site even had Rutland listed as the winner of that game before fixing it this week. There were 110 girls games, including 40 first-round games last week involving No. 1 seeds playing No. 4 seeds, but no upset was bigger than Monroe's.

"I think we surprised a lot of people,'' said Cheeks, whose team plays at LaGrange (19-9) tonight as part of a girls-boys doubleheader in the second round of the playoffs. "You heard people talking, people in the community doubted us. They never expected us to get this far.''

Not everyone doubted Monroe.

"I'm not surprised Monroe beat Rutland, not surprised at all,'' Westover girls coach Lewis Smith said. "That's a talented team. They're athletic and they run and put a lot of pressure on people. People aren't used to that kind of pressure.''

Cheeks said on the way back from Rutland the coaches were talking about how Monroe was "the Cinderella story,'' Cheeks said.

But no one runs faster in a glass slipper than the Lady Tornadoes, who use an unrelenting defense to dictate the game.

In a game against Perry this season, Monroe forced 55 turnovers. In the first meeting against Dougherty, Monroe forced 28 turnovers -- in one quarter.

Monroe is 14-15 for the season, but one of those wins was against fifth-ranked Westover and one against seventh-ranked Rutland. And if Monroe wins tonight, it could mean a fourth showdown with Westover at Columbus State on Saturday night in the Elite 8 with a berth in the Final Four on the line.

Monroe is alive with all those aspirations, making a run from winning just three games a year ago to being a threat in their first appearance in the state tournament in more than a decade.

"We're playing with confidence,'' Cheeks said. "At the beginning of the year, our (coaches') expectations for the young ladies were so high, and we questioned ourselves if they were too high.

"Now the young ladies are really buying into it. It's taken a lot of hard work, because we don't have girls who had the understanding of basketball, so we spent a lot of time working on fundamentals. We don't have the DyTieshas and Ieshias who know the game and understand it,'' added Cheeks, referring to Westover's stars DyTiesha Dunson and Ieshia Young.

Monroe does have stars of its own. Lakeisha Jackson, the team's only senior, has led the way all year, and players such as Ashley Johnson and Sheniqua Young have improved to become scoring threats along with Jessica Burks and Narkisa Hilson, both of whom have come off the bench to add to the offense. Everybody plays defense and it's hard to imagine anyone running harder than role players such as Destinee Collins and Davone Anduze. But everyone runs.

"In the fourth quarter, we can see the other team is tired'' said Cheeks, who believes there is no limit to how far Monroe can go. "They understand they hold their own destiny.

"I can see a difference, a different energy the way the practice and the way they play the game. It's a

different energy, but we need to stay humble and hungry. No one expected us to be here.''