Westwood and Virginia Vereen, left, lost to Kristen Greene and Crisp Academy in the Class A state title game a season ago, but the two programs appear on a crash course once again for a state championship duel.
DAWSON — Call them the Quad Squad, or just call them the latest chapter in Terrell Academy girls basketball.
The dynasty is alive and well at TAE, where the Lady Eagles begin another run at what they hope is a fourth consecutive state title.
It all starts tonight as the GISA’s state tournaments begin with the girls opening games. The boys teams open Thursday.
Westwood will send both of its teams into action tonight and Thursday at ABAC and wouldn’t meet Region 3-A rival Crisp Academy, which also has two teams in the state tournament, until the state finals. That’s where Westwood’s girls lost to Crisp a year ago, and both teams expect a state title rematch.
Sherwood’s boys and Deerfield’s girls and boys teams open at Stratford. The DWS girls open today against Tattnall Square as both the Knights and Lady Knights are coming off region title wins over the weekend.
If you’re surprised to see TAE here, then you shouldn’t be. Sure, the Lady Eagles lost three starters — Millie Foster, Marlee Locke and Carley Law — who were the anchors in a program that has won three state titles in a row.
And yes, just about everyone thought the program would take a nose dive this season.
“Yeah, absolutely. We heard that,’’ TAE coach Keith Jones said Tuesday on the eve of his team’s state opener at home against No. 4 seed Curtis Baptist. “We knew we would have to replace those three. It’s never easy when you’ve had a group that’s been playing together for so long.
GISA BOYS, GIRLS STATE TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE
No. 2 Westwood vs. No. 3 Heritage Christian
No. 1 Crisp Academy vs. No. 4 Twiggs
No. 2 Crisp Academy vs. No. 3 Providence Christian
No. 1 Westwood vs. No. 4 Twiggs
At Terrell Academy
No. 1 Terrell Academy vs. No. 4 Curtis Baptist
At Terrell Academy
No. 2 SGA vs. No. 3 Frederica
No. 1 Deerfield-Windsor vs. No. 4 Tattnall Square
No. 1 Arlington Christian vs. No. 4 Southland
No. 2 Sherwood Christian vs. No. 3 Stratford
No. 1 Deerfield-Windsor vs. No. 4 Griffin Christian
“We’re not supposed to be playing in the state tournament. At the beginning of the year we weren’t even ranked, but we have moved up and the last time I looked we were No. 2 in the coaches poll.’’
And here they are, playing at home tonight (8:30) in the opening round of the Class AA state tournament, and the Lady Eagles have arrived in style as a No. 1 seed with a 22-3 record and a 15-game winning streak.
“We’ve got some kids who have played a lot,’’ said Jones, who has nurtured the program to the point where kids not only want to play for Terrell, but they want to play hard. “They bought into it. We are playing the same way we always have — an up-tempo game with a lot of pressure on defense. These kids have worked hard. I’ve been blessed with great kids, great athletes. And I’ve been blessed with great parents. I have a great set of parents who have raised their kid right.’’
The one constant to the last four years is senior Alex Barfield, who hit a shot at the buzzer two years ago to give TAE its second state title. Terrell moved up from Class A to Class AA last year and no one gave the Lady Eagles a chance, but they built a big lead and then hung on against Gatewood, 43-41, to win it all. She will be trying to win her fourth straight title and the first without the threesome that graduated.
Now — with the core of last year’s starting lineup gone — the Lady Eagles are in the same spot they were a year ago: itching to make a run at No. 4.
“We don’t set goals for wins. Our goal is the ultimate goal. We want to win the last game,’’ said Jones, whose teams have played in the state title game six of the last seven years.
That’s apparent, because all of Jones’ teams play a tough, disciplined brand of basketball, and his kids are just physically and mentally tough. They don’t get rattled and just play through whatever confronts them.
Even the newcomers know what’s expected. Marilauren Farr, a 6-foot freshman, has stepped right in and made an impact and leads the team in scoring (16 points per game) and rebounds (9 per game). Jones said her parents are part of that success story.
“Her mother brought her to the gym last summer, and she worked hard to get better,’’ Jones said. “All of our parents are great, and our kids work hard.’’
The Lady Eagles did bring back experience. Alex Barfield is averaging 15 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and Lauren Barfield (no relation) played a lot last year and returned to average 12 points and 8.0 rebounds. Maura Milliron, who is averaging 10 points a game, played a lot as an eighth-grader because of injuries and started the last two years to add a ton of experience, talent and court savvy. Then there’s Sarah Bridges, a junior guard who has emerged as the team’s defensive specialist.
It’s a solid group that has come together as the season progressed.
“We’ve got to be the quietest 22-3 team in the history of basketball,’’ Jones said. “I’m just so happy with them. They came in and accepted the fact that we were not going to throw in the towel.’’
Maybe that should be the slogan for the Quad Sqaud: “No Towels, just Banners.’’
SGA BOYS: While Terrell Academy’s girls get ready for a familiar run, the boys team at Southwest Georgia Academy is looking for a brand new adventure in the Class AA tournament.
“Without a doubt, this is the best team we have had in many years,’’ said SGA coach David Byrne, who added that the last really good team at SGA was “in the 1990s.’’
In fact, SGA hasn’t won a region title since 1972, the last time the school won a boys basketball state title. So Byrne’s kids are the talk of Damascus. They’re 19-4 and had a 12-game winning streak before losing to Fullington, 57-50, in the Region 3-AA title game last Friday. SGA split with Fullington in the regular season and actually won Round 2 by 30 points at home.
Now they need to bounce back and make a run at a state title that everyone in Early County is talking about winning, despite the program’s history.
“I can’t even tell you the last time we got past the first round in the tournament,’’ said Byrne, who is in his fifth year as the head coach.
But this year’s group has everything it takes to make a run.
“We’ve got some size with 6-5, 6-4 and 6-4, and we have some kids who can shoot,’’ Byrne said. “And we have a lot of unselfish players who are willing to share the ball. Usually you have one or two kids who can play. This year we have five who can play, and that makes it hard on other teams. You can’t key on one player.’’
McKinley Chambless, a 6-5 sophomore who plays guard, leads SGA, averaging 16.6 points a game, and three players are scoring 10 points a night: Kameron Whitaker, a 6-1 senior, Alex Chambless, a 6-1 junior, and Billy Grimsley, a 6-4 senior. Nate Lingo, a 6-4 senior, is averaging 8.0 points a game, and he and Grimsley are both pulling down about seven rebounds a night.
Now all they have to do is go out and win the opening game Thursday night at Terrell Aademy, where SGA faces defending state champ Frederica, which brought back all five starters from its title team.
“There was a three-way tie in the region, and they flipped coins and Frederica ended up the third seed, and that’s why we’re playing them,’’ said Byrne, who is bewildered by his team‘s unfortunate draw. “Then if we win we will probably play Furtah in the second round, and they’re undefeated and are 27-0. It feels like we’re playing the Final Four in the first two rounds.
“So it makes it very interesting. If we get by the first two round we will have beaten two of the best teams in the state.’’
Still, the community and the kids are pumped for a run.
“They’re excited,’’ Byrne said. “They know about Frederica, but they’re confident. They know we can’t have mistakes playing a team like Frederica. They’re upset about losing the last game to Fullington, and they want to show people they’re better than that.’’
DEERFIELD BOYS, GIRLS: SGA isn’t alone in the tough-draw department. Deerfield-Windsor‘s boys also got a tough break in their opener.
The DWS girls, who won an emotional Region 3-AAA championship game against Westfield when Candace Cosby hit a free throw with 0.3 seconds left, open tonight against Tattnall Square at Stratford. The Lady Knights will be a huge favorite, while the Knights, who have been a state power for years, will have their hands full when they face Griffin Christian Academy at 7 p.m. Thursday at Stratford.
“A coach told me (Tuesday) our game will be the best first-round game in the tournament,’’ DWS coach Gordy Gruhl said. “Everyone in that region tells me Griffin is the best team in the region. Well, Merry Christmas.
“They were the No. 1 team going into the region tournament, but they fell to fourth in the region tournament. We’ve beaten everyone in that region, and are 5-0 against teams in that region.’’
Gruhl, who won his 1,000th career game Saturday when DWS beat Sherwood Christian to win the Region 3-AAA title, sighed and then added: “I‘m worried about winning 1,001. This is the toughest first-round draw we’ve had in the last 10-15 years.’’
DWS is 21-3 and hasn’t lost since dropping two games in a Christmas tournament in Alabama. The Knights are led by Ramello Carter, who is averaging 20 points a game, and Gruhl calls this year’s team, “a blue-collar team that needs to grind it out every night.’’
“We play 10 every night,’’ he said. “And we have to play good defense and get points off our defense. We‘ve been in a lot of close games and that should help us in the tournament, because when you win close games the kids start believing.’’
At Deerfield, they always believe they’ll get past the first round — regardless of the opponent.