Mitchell County assistant boys basketball coach Derex Woumnm, left, holds the Region 1-A championship trophy as his players celebrate behind him after the Eagles captured the crown — and No. 1 seed in this week’s Class A State Tournament — last Saturday in Pelham. But the boys basketball team from Camilla wasn’t alone that night as the Lady Eagles won the girls title and will also be a No. 1 seed. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CAMILLA — You have heard of March Madness. How about Mitchell Madness?
That’s the way they feel today at Mitchell County High School, where both the boys and girls teams have stormed into the state playoffs, capturing a pair of Region 1-A titles over the weekend and the imagination of every basketball fan in Camilla.
The GHSA state tournaments begin Friday and Saturday, but no school in Georgia has arrived quite like the Eagles and Lady Eagles, who will both be at home after turning the region and the school upside down.
“It was awesome when we came back to school on Tuesday. Everybody was excited. Everybody was congratulating us,’’ said Shonbreka Holton, whose clutch free throws down the stretch buried No. 1 seed Pelham in the girls Region 1-A title game last Saturday night. “We felt like superstars. I felt like Kobe.’’
The boys team had the same feeling hit them the minute they walked in the doors Tuesday.
“It was crazy,’’ said DiQuan Isom, the only senior who starts for the Eagles. “It’s been a minute since that kind of excitement has been this way. Everybody was happy and congratulating us.’’
Mitchell guard Stacey Butler Jr., finished Isom’s sentence.
“It was crazy at school,’’ he said. “Teachers who aren’t even sports fans were happy and congratulating us.’’
It’s a new day at Mitchell, but no one wants it to end.
“After we beat Pelham Saturday night, I woke up Sunday morning with that same feeling,’’ said A’Miracle Jones, a sophomore who leads the girls team along with Holton. “I had the same feeling when I came back to school. It’s a good feeling. I want to keep it going.’’
That’s what this weekend is all about — keeping it going at Mitchell County, where the girls open up against Region 2-A, No. 4 seed Echols County at 6 p.m. on Friday, while the boys host Region 2-A, No. 4 Atkinson County at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
Mitchell County wanted to play a doubleheader, but Echols County wouldn’t go for it.
Anyone who saw the way Mitchell’s teams fed off each other in the Region 1-A title games Saturday would do anything to avoid a double-dose of Mitchell Madness.
The Eagles, who played with enough energy to light up Atlanta, simply destroyed Calhoun County, racing out to a 44-11 lead at halftime (that’s not a misprint — it was Forty-Four to Eleven!) before taking home the crown with a 69-44 win.
The Lady Eagles, who had lost twice to Pelham this season — by 18 points in the first meeting and by 24 points just two weeks ago — took that momentum and jumped out to an 11-5 lead in the first quarter, right there in the Pelham gym, sending a message to the defending region champs that this game would be different.
Pelham went to halftime with the lead, but just before the Lady Eagles left the locker room, Eagles assistant coach Derex Woumnm stepped in to say a few words. He also walked in carrying the boys Region 1-A title trophy.
“There was two minutes left, and I told them they had two minutes to make up their minds to go out there and win their trophy,’’ Woumnm said. “When they walked out of the locker room, every one of them touched the trophy on the way out, and one girl grabbed it.’’
Then the Lady Eagles grabbed their own trophy, beating Pelham, 54-48, and then stormed the court in a wild and wonderful celebration that has lasted for days.
No one wants it to stop.
And no one thinks it will.
“The best thing about this team is that they are playing harder and playing better at the end of the season,’’ Lady Eagles coach Rosemary Sanders said Tuesday. “They’re playing their best right now.’’
It’s true. Mitchell’s girls entered the region tournament with a 12-12 record, then won three games in a row, including against Randolph-Clay, the No. 1 seed in the north end of the region, and Pelham, which is ranked No. 10 in the Class A state poll.
“They played as a team,’’ Sanders said. “They communicated with each other and listened to the coaches. And they stopped getting down on themselves and played together and stayed together. It was a team win.’’
It was for a group of kids who have been playing together since they played on “The Extremes” travel team when they were 9 years old. Jones and Holton average about 18 to 20 points per game each and grab an average of 15 rebounds a night. That’s 40 points and 30 boards from the Super Sophomores. Sanders knew they were on their way years ago.
“When they were in seventh and eighth grade, they were killing everybody and blowing teams out,’’ Sanders said. “I knew what I was getting, but there is a big adjustment to high school.’’
The biggest step might have been Saturday against a team everyone said Mitchell couldn’t beat.
“Even students at our school were telling us we would never beat Pelham,’’ Holton said. “I was already mad because Pelham won the region last year and we didn’t. We beat them in the regular season last year and felt like we should have won the region.’’
Jones said the team came a long way in one night.
“Now we have confidence,’’ she said. “Before we would look at teams and we were looking at how tall they were and we were a little afraid and (intimidated) by them. But not now. We have the confidence that we can beat anyone. I think we’re ready to make a run.’’
While the girls turned the season around in one night, the boys team made strides down the stretch. And by the time they arrived in the title game, they not only were the top-seeded team in the south end of the region but a team that was out for revenge.
The general consensus was the boys teams in the north were a little better than the south, but Woumnm said when he heard it — and he heard it a lot — he just used it to motivate his kids.
Calhoun lost to Mitchell in double overtime in December, but the Cougars beat defending champ Terrell County (which had beaten Mitchell by 10 points earlier in the season) twice by big margins and had emerged as the No. 5 team in The Herald’s Fab 5 Poll.
But no one gained momentum down the stretch like the Eagles, who took Herald No. 1 Albany High to overtime in a two-point loss on Jan. 21.
“That second Albany High game was the turning point in our season,’’ Woumnm said. “We missed some free throws at the end of regulation and felt like we could have won that game. That gave us confidence. We felt if we could play with Albany High and beat them, then we could beat anybody.’’
The Eagles’ players also were furious because Calhoun eliminated them early last year, and they didn’t even get into the state tournament. They hit Calhoun with everything they had, and ran the court with abandon and an unrelenting defense and energy on a night no one in Camilla will forget.
They simply didn’t slow down. Nine players scored in the first half and 12 total scored in the game as Mitchell got points from everywhere.
Calhoun coach Marcus Shaw said afterward that Mitchell didn’t just play hard, they “definitely played hard all night.’’
Woumnm wants that same energy this week against Atkinson County.
“The best compliment I got Saturday night is when Miller County coach Tim Martin came up to me after the game and said, ‘I wish my kids would have been here to see how hard your kids played all night,’ ” he said. “That meant a lot to me that he said that. That was the best compliment I got all night.’’
Isom leads the way, averaging 13-to-14 points a game, and Butler can drop 20 a night if he has to. He’s that kind of player. Butler is averaging 17 points a game after missing the first half of the season. Mitchell (18-9) had to play without Butler and role player Brian Peoples, who were academically ineligible.
Woumnm said he is proud of their grades and work in the classroom now, and admits his team is so close that it affected everyone when those two players were out. That’s just one of the reasons Mitchell has become such a force down the stretch.
Jermain Hartsfield, another junior, is averaging a double-double for the season with 10 to 12 points and 10-to 12 rebounds per game, and Daron Hodges is a junior Woumnm calls his ultimate role player.
“He will do whatever I need him to do,’’ Woumnm said.
Then there’s junior Jaquan Williams, who leads the team in steals and makes everyone around him better. Every player — players such as sixth man Bruce Bryant and defensive specialist Modzelle Atkins — know their role and step up when called upon, just as Peoples and big man Grover Stewart, a 6-foot-4 offensive linemen who earned a football scholarship to Albany State, know their role.
“This is a different group than we had last year,’’ Woumnm said. “Last year they could put a box-and-one on Stacey, but we have too many players who can score this year, and everybody knows their role and does what they need to do.’’
The kids and Woumnm have known each other forever.
“I’ve known Stacey and his family since he was 4 years old,” Woumnm said. “All these kids grew up together. They’re like brothers. This team is a family.’’
A family headed for a run in the state tournament — and maybe more. The Eagles are so young that every Mitchell fan believes this could be the start of a new era.
“Back in the day when you said Mitchell-Baker on the basketball court, it struck fear into opponents,’’ Woumnm said of the school’s storied basketball history (Mitchell County and Baker County split into separate schools in 2006). “Somewhere down the line we lost that — putting fear into opponents. We want to bring that back. We don’t have size, but we have the biggest heart. These guys right here are taking steps to get that back.’’
They could take a big step Saturday.
“Mitchell County has never been past the first round of the state playoffs,’’ Isom said. “And Mitchell-Baker hadn’t done it since they won the state title in 2003. That’s what we want to do. We want to make history at Mitchell County.’’