Last women standing -- Part 1

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

CAMILLA -- This is a Cinderella story, but for the kids at Westwood, it looks and feels a lot more like Snow White.

Honest. You have to know these Westwood kids to understand why that fairytale fits just like Cinderella fits the Lady Wildcats, who will show up at the ball today when they meet David Emanuel at 2:30 p.m. this afternoon in the GISA Class A Final Four at Georgia College and State University.

Cinderella had an easier time getting to the ball. But it's taken Westwood 40 years -- a fact that's not lost on any of the players or students at the school.

"We're the first team in the school's history to get to the Final Four,'' said guard Miller Singleton, one of three juniors who starts. "We have an opportunity that's never been here before. We need to seize it because it might never happen again.''

Singleton's pretty versatile on the court (eight points per game with three steals a night and an average of four rebounds a game), but so is every player on this team.

That's what brings us to Snow White. Singleton played the lead role in the school's one-act play competition that finished third in the state last fall.

Virginia Vereen, a 5-foot-10 junior who leads the Lady Wildcats in scoring (11 points a game) and rebounds (7 per game), played the wicked witch.

Seven members of the basketball team were in the play. Nine of the 11 basketball players were on Westwood's state championship track team, including Singleton, who won the state pole vault title, and Vereen, who broke the state record in the 300-meter hurdles. Six of them played softball, including Hannah Hinesely, an all-region player, Christian Johnson, an all-state catcher, and Singleton, an all-state shortstop. That's right, Snow White can turn a double play.

And then there's Sydnee Smith, a junior who has won the state tennis title for the last two years and will go for the three-peat this spring.

"These kids do everything,'' said Sydnee's mother, coach Jenni Smith, who has turned the basketball program around in just three years. "They have to or we wouldn't have all the programs we have. We're a very small school, and they work very hard at everything they do. Raw talent and ability can take you only so far. It's the hard work they put in.''

It shows.

Maybe in Camilla they can change the hard-work cliche from blue-collar workers to orange-collar workers. The Westwood kids just have that mentality, that drive and a passion for everything they do.

They're upset the play didn't win the state title, and instead of being giddy about reaching the Final Four for the first time, most of these kids are upset because it took so long.

"The juniors are ticked off,'' said Vereen with a look on her face that showed she meant business. "We're bitter about being kicked out of the state tournament so early the past two years. We were kicked out of the region two years ago, and we were kicked out of the state playoffs in the first round last year. We've never been past the first round.''

They are now, and more history could be made this weekend.

"We're just ready to win and make a name for ourselves,'' Vereen said.

Smith could see it coming -- from the day she became the head coach.

"Three years ago I felt by the time (the freshmen) were juniors they should be able to go deep in the playoffs,'' she said. "The difference in this year's team is that they have engaged every opponent. They have been scrappy and have played hard in every game. We played the toughest schedule we have ever played and won more games than ever.''

That 17-10 record includes a victory against Brookwood, which was ranked No. 1 in the state in GISA Class AA for some of the year, and an overtime thriller against Thomas Jefferson at ABAC last week that sent Westwood to the Final Four.

But Smith has done more than that in three years. She has built the foundation for a program. Her junior varsity team went 16-0 this season, and her sixth-grade team played for the championship. Smith, her daughter Sydnee, Singleton and Vereen spent four Saturdays working with the kiddy teams -- from first-through fifth-graders -- this season in a grassroots program.

"It's been a blast,'' Smith said of the season. "This has been my goal for this team and this program. I wanted to build a basketball program at Westwood.''

She has, brick by brick.

Westwood is more than a private school. It's a community, one that's proud, hard-working and passionate about its athletic programs. When the football team won the state title a few months ago, there was joy all over Camilla. Now that the girls have made history, that same strong community is embracing the team.

"Everybody is very excited. I think people were kind of surprised,'' Smith said. "The expectations were never there. We told the girls all season they had the ability to reach the finals, but I really don't know if the girls believed it until we beat Thomas Jefferson. That's when they started to believe it. We had to actually do it for them to believe it.''

They have confidence now -- and a bit of revenge on their side. Last year's first-round loss in the state tournament was to none other than David Emanuel, which went on to the Final Four before losing to state champ Terrell Academy. Of course, TAE is now in Class AA and playing in the Final Four at 4 p.m. The Lady Eagles will be pulling for the Westwood girls today.

"We're happy for them,'' TAE coach Keith Jones said. "I knew they had a good team. As a matter of fact, I told my team after it was over last year when we played them that those girls were one big win away from cementing that program as (a contender) for the state.

"And now look where they are. I really like coach Smith, and she's done a great job. Them and Crisp County are still in it, and they're kind of carrying the torch in Class A now (that we've moved up to Class AA), and hopefully a team from the South will win it."

Westwood will have to overcome last year's loss to David Emanuel, which left a lasting impression, winning by 20.

"They cleaned our clocks,'' Smith said of the rout. "But I think we've got a shot at them this time.''

The Westwood kids won't be intimidated.

Vereen is mad, bitter and looking for a name, and Singleton's personality took a turn when the subject came up at practice on Wednesday.

"Snow White has claws,'' she said. "And when it comes to (winning the state title) you are going to see them.''

Smith's team plays tough every night -- tough and fast. The Lady Wildcats love to run, and Smith employs an in-your-face pressure defense that spits up turnovers and knows how to run once they pop up.

Sydnee Smith is the catalyst. The tennis ace is averaging more than four steals a game and dropping in about five points a night. She is at the heart of this defense, leading the team in steals and hustle. Singleton, a 5-foot-2 guard, also heats up the press, but everyone runs at Westwood, where they might just run away with a state title.

The Lady Wildcats are scoring more of late, too. That's because everyone is getting more opportunities, including 5-9 sophomore Ivy Foister, who plays inside, and Morgan Singleton, an eighth-grader who cracked the starting lineup last month. She is averaging six points a game, and led the way with a 15-point night against Georgia Christian in the Lady Wildcats' first Region 3-A playoff game.

No one knows how Westwood will react to its first big dance, and being the first team in the 40-year history of the school might be a burden to carry into today's game.

"It's cool,'' Sydnee Smith said. "Nobody else has ever done it. I try not to think about it. You just want to go out and play the game. You don't want to put too much pressure on yourself.''

There was no pressure at practice this week, just a lot of orange-collar workers whose grit and sweat made those orange collars turn a deep, rich color as everyone took the last steps to getting to state.

But even in the midst of all this excitement, Vereen and Singleton had to rush off right after practice. They are competing in the state literary competition. That's right, Snow White and the wicked witch are in their own two-girl interpretive production.

The kids do a little of everything at Westwood, where Snow White, the witch, a coach with vision and a orange-collar team of believers will walk on the court this afternoon looking for that glass slipper -- knowing Cinderella has nothing on them.