Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

PELHAM -- Pelham Athletic Director Jim Morrell loves it when he's asked where Pelham High School found its new girls basketball coach, Antonia Tookes.

"I just tell them, 'God dropped her on our doorstep,' '' Morrell said with a smile as big as the gap between last year's team and this year's.

The Grand Canyon might be easier to leap than the jump Pelham's girls basketball program made this season. But if God brought Tookes to Pelham, her players didn't see anything heavenly about their coach when she first arrived.

Tookes showed up pounding her fist into her hand with a new way of life -- tough, hard basketball with a brand of discipline no one had seen in years.

Some players quit, all of them complained and even the team's biggest star walked out under Tookes' hard-knocks coaching style.

But on the night Pelham won the Region 1-A title -- the first since 1997 -- all of those kids came to up to their coach. They hugged her, told her thanks, and even said, "I love you.''

That's a glimpse of Pelham's wild and incredible season, one full of pain and growing, a run for the ages with a first-year coach who was only trying to get a job teaching PE, but has now landed the Lady Hornets in the first round of the Class A state playoffs. The only thing left is one more push for this not-so-fairytale ending (Cinderella never had to run Tookes' suicide drills) that would give Pelham a state title.

"We can do it. All we have to do is follow that lead,'' said junior Octavia Kierce, pointing to Tookes. "She can get us to Macon (and the Final Four). She got us to Terrell County, didn't she?''

Terrell County was the site for the Region 1-A title, and Pelham arrived in style, flying up and down the court, running by everyone in the region. The Lady Hornets left with the title, shouting "P-Town, Boom! P-Town, Boom!" as they danced off as champs.

There were tears and laughter and enough hugs to embarrass Oprah.

The kids gave Tookes a card, right there on the floor after the trophy presentation. It wasn't one of those pass-around-the-office-because-it's your-birthday cards. This one came with the sweat and tears and passion of a season written on it. All the kids signed it, and wrote: "Thanks for the motivation. Thanks for the determination. And thanks for the discipline. We love you.''

"I do love her. She's my coach,'' said D'Ambria Thomas, who scored 29 points in the region final. "She would do anything for us.''

It was Thomas, a Herald Super 6er who is arguably as good or better than any player in Southwest Georgia, who had the run-in with Tookes early. It came after a game against Cairo. There were words and Thomas left the team.

"It was really a misunderstanding,'' Thomas said. "At first we didn't get along too good, and after the Cairo game she kind of called me out, and I said something and she told me if I didn't like it I could pack up my things and leave the team. I left.''

Thomas returned two days later with kinder words. Tookes allowed her back on the team, but not without a price. Thomas had to do all the running everyone else did that day (and Tookes runs her team like she's getting ready for the Olympic Marathon) -- and an extra 100 laps.

"I think that was the turning point of the season,'' said Pelham assistant coach Derrick Lavatte, who had been the head coach for the past three years. "The kids saw that she would not take anything from the star player, and they knew there was nothing they could do to make her bend her will. When you don't have different provisions for the superstar player and the other players, it sets a tone. It says she is not going to get away with stuff, and that means no one is going to get away with stuff.''

Thomas never looked back, and was at the head of the line thanking Tookes after the region title.

"The difference between this year's team and last year's team is discipline,'' Thomas said. "You are not going to win without discipline.''

The lesson has been learned at Pelham.

"She came in here and I knew from the first day she was here that she was going to bring discipline to this team,'' Kierce said. "It's her way or the highway. You do what coach Tookes says, or you're on Highway 19.''

Tookes wasn't just tough. She helped everyone's game, and there's not a kid on this team that won't tell you they are a better basketball player today than a year ago because of their newfound coach.

"She made everyone a better player, but coach Tookes is about a lot more than that,'' junior T'Shaunessy Reese said. "She teaches us about life, not just basketball. And she's got our back. She would do anything for us, and we would do anything for her. She told us: 'If your boyfriend leaves you alone at the movies, I'll come pick you up.' And we know she would.''

Tookes pounds her fist in her hand so much that every kid on the team can impersonate the coach. They know all her standard lines and can deliver them at a drop of a hat.

"It's all about 94 feet,'' Thomas said with a deep voice, imitating Tookes, who preaches that once you walk onto the court (which is 94 feet), nothing else matters.

But it's Kierce who may do the funniest takeoffs on Tookes, who was an assistant coach at Camden County for 13 years.

After practice Wednesday, Kierce dropped her voice, twisted her face into a battle-hard look and said in a voice so low it scraped the floor: "We had a post at Camden County ...''

The other girls laughed at the on-the-money act, but it was just that kind of mocking and playful fun that helped bring Pelham together.

Tookes demanded a lot, but always gave back more. She took the team to Tallahassee, Fla., to see a Florida State women's game, and plans on taking the team to a WNBA game this summer. It's more than basketball -- it's a family at Pelham.

"I think everything started to change when we took the trip to FSU in November,'' Tookes said. "We were on the bus and some of the kids were mocking me, saying the things that I say. I heard them and I started laughing along with them. That surprised them. It was the first time they saw the other side of me. That kind of broke the ice, and that's when we started coming together as a team.''

They've been taking teams apart since, and somewhere along the way all that hard work and running turned into the best time anyone has ever had at Pelham.

"It's been fun,'' Kierce said. "How much fun? Look at that (22-6) record. That's how much fun it's been.''

That record includes a current seven-game winning streak, and the Lady Hornets seem to be getting better with every game. Thomas is averaging 20 points, seven rebounds, five steals and four assists a night, and Tookes can't even tell you what position her point guard plays.

"She's my everything,'' Tookes said. "She's unbelievable. It's like having Michael Jordan on your team. She just takes over. She gets in a zone and is hard to stop. She can do it all.''

But she doesn't have to.

Kierce is averaging 15 points and 12 rebounds a game, and Reese is averaging 17 points and four assists a game. The threesome are all cousins, but even they admit it took Tookes to bring them together.

"She made us more of a team,'' Reese said. "We play together as a team so much more this year. She made us a team.''

Tookes has brought in pizzas and Subway sandwiches from time to time to help with the bonding, and has assisted the girls as much off the court as she has on it.

And the ride has been sweet for Tookes. The sweetest. She had no idea when she crawled into her Kia Sorrento back in August that the road she was taking was going to lead her to so much happiness and success. Tookes had left her alma mater at Camden County after 13 years as an assistant and worked a year as an assistant coach at Coffee County, then taught physical education for a year without coaching at all before leaving Coffee.

"I went back home and started looking for a job -- any job,'' Tookes said. "I was looking in Jacksonville (Fla.), in Alabama and in Georgia. I didn't even know where Pelham was when I applied, and I didn't apply for a basketball coaching job. I just needed a job and thought I was going to be just a P.E. teacher.''

She looked on Mapquest, got directions to Pelham and made the 3 -hour drive across Georgia, and after interviewing with Laron Smith, who is the middle school principal and also the high school boys basketball coach, she thought she would be teaching health.

"(Laron) called me back the next day and said I had the job as the middle school health teacher,'' Tookes said. "Then he added: 'You are also going to be the head girls basketball coach at Pelham High School.'

"I told him I would be there the next day.''

Tookes still has to take a deep breath when she tells the story.

"This is what I always wanted to be,'' she said. "I just wanted the opportunity to see if I could make a difference as a head basketball coach. Basketball is my heartbeat.''

And now she's got the heart of Pelham beating for her team.

"I can tell you this,'' began Lavatte, "and I'm the former (girls) head coach who was here last year: This program is so much better. It's in better shape now than it has been in eight or nine years. There's more infrastructure, more discipline. More people care about the program. This program is going to go high, and keep getting better. And it's because of her.''

Tookes can take it all in and relish every moment, but that fist will be pounding the minute her team takes the floor in tonight's first-round game against Emanuel County Institute. She knows her kids have a chance at a state title, and she also knows she'll have them ready -- even if she wasn't ready for where that road brought her back in August.

"I did land here in God's hand,'' Tookes said. "I was looking for a P.E job, and look what happened. That has to be in God's hands.''