Seminole County senior Katrese Brown leads the Lady Indians in scoring with 15 points per game. The Seminole girls’ season takes another huge step tonight with an Elite 8 game against Gordon Lee. (Larry G. Williams/Special to The Herald)
DONALSONVILLE — It was still pitch dark outside when Katrese Brown woke up at 6 a.m. Monday.
But there was light ahead for Brown and her Seminole County teammates.
“I never get up that early,’’ said Brown, the senior leader for the Lady Indians, who all had to rise before dawn to board a bus from Donalsonville headed for the Tennessee border, where they meet Gordon Lee High in Chickamauga, Ga., in the Elite 8 round of the Class A state playoffs at 6 p.m. today.
The round-trip will cover almost 700 miles.
But that’s nothing compared to the journey these kids have already been on this season — a season born in tears and heartache and one that has seen this team and a new coach make an emotional and memorable trip all the way to the state quarterfinals.
They carried the memory of Jesse McLeod every step of the way.
McLeod, the legendary coach who not only won 585 games and three state titles but touched the lives of just about everyone in Seminole County, lost his battle with cancer in August, and the kids dedicated the season to him.
“It has been hard. It has been emotional,’’ senior guard Candace Barber said. “We loved coach McLeod. It’s been a part of our whole season. We always think about him. We have our T-shirts with his picture on them. We keep him in our hearts, and it helps keep us focused.’’
They made it here, to the final eight teams in the state, and nothing about it was easy. After playing one of the toughest Class A schedules in the state, Seminole just made the cut to reach the state playoffs. Under the new Class A public school/private school format, only the top 16 teams reach the postseason, and Seminole entered as the No. 14 seed.
That meant an opening round game on the road against No. 3 Marion County. No one outside of Donalsonville gave the Seminole girls a chance, but they pulled off the biggest upset in the state last week, beating Marion County, 60-50.
Now they face Gordon Lee, which was ranked No. 2 all season until the region finals when the Lady Trojans fell to Southwest Atlanta Christian, the top-ranked private school team in the state, and dropped to No. 6 in the state seedings.
It will be a tall task — literally. Gordon Lee (22-7) is led by 6-foot-4 Katelyn Lee, who has already committed to Samford.
“It doesn’t matter how tall she is,’’ said Seminole center Alexus Watson, a 5-10 senior who has averaged a double-double this season (13 points and 12 rebounds per game). “Even though they have a tall girl, I’m not going to let that intimidate me. This is our last year, and it has been a special year. We want to keep it going.
“It’s been a very special season,’’ she said. “The loss of coach McLeod ... It’s been hard. We really want to win it for coach McLeod. He was special to us. He will always have a place in our hearts.’’
Brown leads the team in scoring with a 15-point average, and Watson has been a power inside along with Marissa Mike, a 5-8 senior. Patrice Barnes, a senior who has started for three years, has been invaluable, and Barber, the point guard, has played a tough and savvy brand of basketball that has seen her get better and better as the year moved on.
Now they all want to move on to the Final Four.
“It would mean everything to us,’’ Brown said. “It would mean everything to us, to the coaches and to everybody back in Donalsonville. It was heartbreaking (to lose coach McLeod) and it was hard at first to adjust to a new coach, but we pushed each other all year.
“It’s hard to explain (how emotional it has been),’’ she said. “I can’t explain what it’s been like. It’s been such a different year with everything ... I have tried to be the leader. We have just told each other that we have to play hard every game and go as far as we can.’’
Wes Williams took over the team and took on a near impossible task, and yet he has his kids here in the Elite 8, facing one of the top Class A teams in Georgia. The Lady Indians went 17-7, but five of those losses were to powerhouses from Randolph-Clay, Mitchell County and Class AA Pelham, which are all in the Elite 8 tonight.
“You know when you get to this point there are no cupcakes,’’ Williams said. “But we played a lot of good teams. It’s pretty obvious of that when you see there are eight teams left in the state and three of them are from our region. It’s obvious we played good teams.’’
Williams said coming out of the tough Region 1-A competition, which has seen No. 1 Randolph-Clay and No. 9 Mitchell County advance to play in the Elite 8 along with Seminole, was the key to the Lady Indians knocking off Marion in the opening round. He said the win against Marion just “re-enforced” what the Seminole kids already knew — that they belonged with the elite in the state.
Most of the players on this team played two years ago when Seminole lost to Calvary Day in an Elite 8 game that was decided by a questionable call that went against Seminole in the final minute. Brown, Watson and Barnes all started for that team, and all of this year’s seniors played on that team.
Brown and Watson are four-year starters, and both have scored more than 1,200 points in their careers. But it’s more than just points. The Seminole kids have a toughness about them, a deep-down desire to win this for their beloved coach and a passion to bring home a title to Donalsonville.
“We have seven seniors and five get significant playing time,’’ Williams said. “All of them are on the honor roll, and the principal’s advisory and everything else at the school. These are great kids.’’
They know the odds may be against them tonight, but Williams has faith in his kids, and they have leaned on each other through this emotional time together and have a bond now that most teams will never know.
“We know we are playing a very good team,’’ Williams said. “They have a 6-4 Division I kid, and their guards can play. We’re going to have to make our shots, and we’re going to have to push the ball on them. They’re a lot bigger than we are, but our girls (Watson, Mike and sophomore Shy’Mesha Hopkins) are going to have to box out and hit the boards against them. But we will be ready.’’
They have already beaten the odds all year.
“We went to Marion County and played our hearts out,’’ Watson said. “And we’re going up to (Gordon Lee) and play our hearts out again.’’