In first year, Sanders has Mitchell girls one win from Final Four

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

CAMILLA -- No one told Rosemary Sanders it was going to be easy.

But here she is, after her first season at the helm -- one that was loaded with highs and lows, praise and criticism -- she has the Mitchell County girls basketball team one win from the Final Four.

"I've had some challenges, had to make some tough decisions but overall it's been a pretty good year," said Sanders, whose Lady Eagles -- the lone remaining Southwest Georgia girls team in the state playoffs-- will take on Class AA No. 1 Vidalia today at Georgia Southwestern in the Elite 8. "We've done better than last year and we've made it farther than the team has been (since 2002). I would say it's been a success."

At times during the season, however, there were some who didn't agree. But there's no debating it now.

After all, a seemingly normal first year as head coach at Mitchell for Sanders was unfolding.

Despite the presence of 6-foot-1 University of North Carolina at Charlotte signee Tiona Burley leading the way, the team struggled to find its chemistry early on, starting out the season 1-4.

But then something happened. The proverbial light came on in Camilla and before Sanders or anyone else knew it, the Lady Eagles went from a team in transition to a team in position -- to make a run, that is.

"I think more than anything, I learned to have patience with the girls," said Sanders, whose team reeled off nine wins in a row after that 1-4 start, moving them to 10-4 and into second place in the region race. "At the beginning, I would be quick to snap and snatch someone out of a game when they made a mistake. I just learned to let them work through those mistakes."

But then something else happened.

On Jan. 19, Brooks County visited Mitchell for a showdown between two region rivals battling for outright control of No. 2 behind Thomasville. Brooks had won the earlier meeting -- but then again, that was against a different Mitchell County team still trying to find its identity.

The game ended in a 55-51 loss for the Lady Eagles -- and while details are still fuzzy about what happened in the Mitchell County locker room after the game, whatever it was resulted in a five-game suspension for the team's star, Burley, and a two-game suspension for teammate Aschiaa Davis.

The fallout afterward -- commenters took to The Herald's message boards, many criticizing Sanders' handling of the situation and the team -- continued for more than two weeks until Burley returned.

Sanders, meanwhile, stood her ground. And at least one close observer of the situation applauded her in the aftermath.

"As someone who watched it unfold, I don't think it was as bad as people were saying it was," said longtime Mitchell County girls and boys basketball coach Kenneth Harris, who turned the girls team over to Sanders this year because he felt "she was ready" to take on her own team after serving as his assistant for years. "Basically, an adjustment had to be made, and she made it. It wasn't popular, but I think the team understood.

"It's just like dealing with your own children -- sometimes you have to discipline them, but you still love them."

Mitchell lost its first game without Burley, a dismal 53-35 defeat to Albany.

But after that, Sanders rallied her team together -- plus eventually Burley returned -- and since then the Lady Eagles have won nine of their last 10. The only loss was to Thomasville in the Region 1-AA title game.

Now, they sit one win from continuing a strange -- but exciting -- season.

"Everyone at school this week got the girls really excited and showed us how much they appreciated how far we've come," said Sanders, a Washington County native who graduated from Albany State in 1997, then moved to Camilla, where she's worked in elementary education ever since. "I guess you could say they were kind of like heroes all week."

Of course, against a Vidalia team that hasn't lost all year -- that's right, the Lady Indians are 29-0 and have been tested just once all season in an overtime win against state No. 2 Laney -- Sanders knows her team is going to need a heroic effort today at GSW.

"(Vidalia is) good -- there's no doubt about it," Sanders said. "I've talked to coaches, seen some film and I know we have to control No. 30 (Shekinah Henry, 6-2, center) and if we can keep her off the boards, I think we can win."

So does Harris, who will join his one-time pupil in Americus today to watch how the rest of Sanders' first season on the job unfolds.

"Coach Sanders has done a wonderful job, just as I knew she would," Harris said. "She's been confident all year in this group. And (even against No. 1 Vidalia) that confidence is still there."