The Darton women's basketball team opens its season today at home against Middle Georgia Tech.
ALBANY -- The moment Darton sophomore Christina Brown stepped on the basketball court with first-year Lady Cavs coach Lea Henry, she knew something was different.
"It was like, go go go go. It was non-stop. Coach Henry didn't take a breath. She just kept going," Brown said after Monday's practice.
Henry's message has been simple since accepting the coaching job in early May -- practice harder than you play.
"I learned that at Tennessee," said Henry, who starred at the University of Tennessee under legendary coach Pat Summitt from 1979-83, started as a point guard for the Gold-Medal-winning 1984 U.S. Olympic Team and has coached Division I programs Georgia State, Mercer and Florida.
"What we are trying to do is get a consistency in how we play. Everything we do, we try to do with a high level of intensity so that they can transition that over into the game," Henry added.
Henry and the Lady Cavs will be taking that intensity into tonight's season opener at home against Middle Georgia Tech at 6 p.m.
The Lady Cavs' journey with their new coach started in early August during the team's first practice, and Henry wasted little time letting her players know what she expected of them.
"There have been moments when they have had to go to the baseline because they weren't doing what they were supposed to do," Henry said. "There have been moments when they have been in my office being reprimanded. But I think we had to instill a high level of discipline, and we have been holding them accountable.
"We made a decision to go right into official practice mode, so we didn't get off to a slow start. Day 1 was just like (Monday). I think at first they were shell-shocked at the expectations that were placed on them, but then at the same time I think they liked it. They liked the fact that not only would we work hard, but there was a lot of positive energy in the gym."
The work hasn't been easy for the Lady Cavs under their new coach, who is a member of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and the Georgia Lady Vol Hall of Fame. But a 4-1 preseason record -- including a win against Division II Albany State -- has helped the team buy into Henry's high-intensity coaching style.
The Lady Cavs finished 18-14 overall and third in the region last year under longtime coach Laura Blackwell, who was fired in early March after 14 years on the job. With Blackwell as coach, the Lady Cavs finished with just two losing seasons, but there may be even more expectations at Darton given the kind of success Henry has had on the sidelines.
Freshman Lauren Johnson, from Cairo, was recruited by Henry in the summer and is ready to be taught by the three-time Georgia Division I Coach of the Year.
"She was such a great player and is such a great coach. There is a lot to learn, but I am really looking forward to getting better and playing at the next level," Johnson said. "And I think she can help me do that."
This is the first time Henry has ever coached non-Division I athletes, but she said she isn't looking at her junior college players any differently.
"We hope that all of these players are here because they want to be Division I players," Henry said. "And we have made it clear that we can help them get there."
Johnson is one of three freshmen who will be starting for the Lady Cavs tonight, but Johnson has looked like anything but a freshmen, according to Henry.
"I have coached for 27 years, and she is one of the hardest working players I have ever coached," Henry said. "I have had a lot of players work hard, but I don't know that anybody tops her."
Johnson is the Lady Cavs' starting point guard and will be joined in the backcourt by freshman Michelle Mitchell of Eastman and Brown, who played high school ball at Northside High School in Columbus.
"(Mitchell) is probably our most talented player, and she has to play well for us. She is a great open floor player and is really athletic and explosive," said Henry, who added that Brown is the team's best shooter.
Starting post players are sophomore Jomanda Smalls of Hardeeville, S.C., and freshman Chanteniece Fann, who played high school ball at Northside, Warner Robins.
"(Fann) is smart and is probably our most fundamentally solid player. She has been coached very well," Henry said. "And (Smalls) is our most athletic player."
Key bench players will be sophomore Amber McKenzie of Ty Ty and Dougherty grad LaKandra Beeks.
"Beeks will be in the mix for us," Henry said about the sophomore power forward. "She is strong and is really improved. We want her to be more of a low post player, and she is working hard to get better. She will play a lot."
Henry's passion for basketball has already spilled over to the rest of the team, and Brown said the players are buying into Henry's "intensity" and her "will to win."
"All coaches want to win," Brown said, "but she is at a higher level. I could tell when she first stepped on the court."