Seminole County's Kevin Godwin, left, and Westwood's Jenni Smith were named the Coaches of the Year in basketball.
Kevin Godwin still shakes his head when he looks back at the beginning of the boys basketball season at Seminole County, while Jenni Smith still embraces the remarkable end of her team’s ride through the playoffs and the jubilation of winning the first girls state basketball title in Westwood’s history.
Both had memorable, emotional and unforgettable rides this season, and Godwin and Smith were clear choices to win The Herald’s Coach of the Year awards.
Godwin, who started the season not knowing what kind of team he would have, led Seminole County’s young and untested kids to its first region title since 2001 and took the Indians all the way to the Elite 8 in a season when no one thought Seminole had a chance to go .500. He is The Herald’s Boys Basketball Coach of the Year.
“We lost three starters who went to other schools, and when the season started I didn’t know what kind of team we would have,’’ Godwin said. “When the season started I was saying, ‘Gaw-lee! How bad is it going to be?’ I thought we would take our lumps this year.’’
But the Indians emerged as a Class A state power and were ranked No. 3 in the state rankings for most of the season. And then after a strong push at the end of the year and some losses to the top two teams, Seminole County — the team no one thought would have a chance to compete this season — took over as the No. 1 team in the state.
Godwin’s kids had trouble believing it, so he printed out the rankings and showed them. It was a remarkable season in every way.
“I had no idea we would play this well,’’ said Godwin, who started three freshman and watched his team grow up along the way. “I knew the eighth-graders coming in were good, but I never expected us to be as good as we were. If someone would have told me at the beginning of the year that we would win 22 games and we would be region champs and the No. 1 team in the state, I would have told them they are crazy.’’
“I’ve been the coach here for seven years, and this is by far the most memorable season, the best one,’’ Godwin said. “Absolutely, there’s no comparison. I enjoyed this season so much. The kids worked hard, and they believed. They believed we could win. I was so proud of them when we won the region championship, the way they played, the way they held their composure. I couldn’t have been prouder. Winning the region championship was a big deal to us. It’s a season I’ll never forget.’’
Smith won’t forget her season at Westwood either.
“It’s the kind of thing that lasts forever,’’ she said of winning not just the girls state title, but winning the first one in the school’s history.
She gave credit to her husband, Tim, who coaches with her. He was there by her side when her team won it all.
It was a ride that has been going on for at least three years at Westwood, where the Lady Wildcats had played in and lost back-to-back state title games to Crisp Academy before winning it al this season.
“In a way it was a relief,’’ said Smith, who cried tears of joy when her kids won the GISA AA state title. She admitted later that she had cried even harder when they lost to Crisp the year before.
That was her team, the seniors who had played together since they were in eighth grade, and when they fell to Crisp for the second year in a row in the title game, the hurt stung like no other.
That alone would have made this year’s run to the title special enough, but Smith put on a clinic with a young group of kids who played smart, hard, disciplined and fundamentally sound basketball. They moved up from Class A to Class AA and went 23-3 and pulled off two monster wins in the Final Four.
Westwood had to beat Gatewood, the Class AA defending state champ, in the semifinals and then had to beat four-time defending Class AAA state champion Arlington Christian in the title game.
Westwood was outsized (Gatewood’s 6-1 Khady Dieng is arguably the best player in all of GISA, and Arlington Christian started a Division I 6-4 post and a 6-1 forward), and appeared to be out-matched in both games, but the Lady Wildcats simply played smarter and harder and better to win two inspirational games in two days.
It took a miracle play in the final seconds of regulation to send the title game into overtime, but Perra Harrell’s airball was snatched in the air by her sister Rachel, who dropped in a shot from under the basket at the buzzer.
Westwood won 72-70 in overtime.
“It was a wonderful experience,’’ Smith said. “I know what it means to win a state championship. I won one when I was a junior in high school at Ravenswood. It’s one of the happiest moments in your life of all the cool stuff to ever happen to you in your life. I don’t think they knew what that felt like, and now they do. They embraced it. They know now.’’
Smith’s team was an unselfish, blue-collar, play-the-game-right bunch that never gave up no matter the odds.
That made the season — and the title — mean even more.
“A lot of times when you have a state championship and you look back, you look back to a player on your team, but this was different,’’ Smith said. “We had a good team. We didn’t have a lot of close games this year and had a ton of ball games that we played 12 kids. They were all a part of it. And even though we played seven in the title game, those other five were invested in it. They were all part of it, all 12. We just had a good team. That makes the state championship special.’’