Pelham’s leaders Annie Franklin, Timbreanna Hudson, Destiny Thomas, Briunna Freeman and Hilary Williams stand behind coach Antonia Tookes. (Staff Photo: Tim Morse)
PELHAM — It’s Monday afternoon after a big weekend of basketball and several members of the Pelham High School girls basketball team are joking around before practice.
A first look and you’d never guess they are 20-0 and have beaten just about all of their opponents soundly this season.
Before coach Antonia Tookes arrives, they laugh, tell funny stories and play pranks on each other.
About 3:30 p.m., Tookes enters the gym from the side door after finishing her day as a teacher at Pelham Middle School. Her players know it’s time to get serious. Today’s practice will be light.
The girls huddle together at center court and Tookes goes to work, telling them about the importance of playing good defense.
“They say offense sells tickets but defense wins championships,” she tells them. “A perfect example of that was last night in the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning and Denver could put up a lot of points, but they were shut down by a good defense.”
They begin sprints, followed by a free throw drill. There isn’t much joking here. They know Tookes means business.
“She’s a great coach,” freshman Mahogany Brown said. “She pushes us to do better.”
It’s not uncommon to see Tookes barking at her team, even her top players. She’s a perfectionist and when things don’t go right, she’ll continue until it meets her standards.
During a game earlier this season, she benched Herald Super 6er Briunna Freeman and told her she was going to sit on the bench until she could learn to box out on the defensive end.
“She will get on all of us, especially when we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do,” McKenzie Smith said. “Especially when she knows that we can do better.”
But the players love their coach, who has Pelham teetering on the edge of history. A victory in the regular-season finale on Saturday would complete a 23-0 season as the Lady Hornets enter the Region 1-AA Tournament.
They don’t want to stop here. After back-to-back appearances in the Class AA quarterfinals, Pelham hopes to take things farther this year. In fact, anything less than a state championship this season will be a disappointment.
Since arriving at Pelham in 2010 from Camden County High, Tookes has amassed a 97-17 record. She has built a program that won’t be a one-hit wonder. With the exception of starting guard Hilary Williams, key reserve Shondreka Jackson and Dashiki Ross, the core of the team will be back next season.
That includes Freeman, who will be one of the top recruits in Southwest Georgia next season. Timbreanna Hudson and Destiny Thomas also return, as well as Annie Franklin, whom Tookes said has played her best basketball in the last five games. Smith, who played extensively earlier this season, also returns.
But the foundation of the team isn’t the talent Tookes has built — it’s the chemistry and bonds.
“We’re like a family,” Smith said. “We enjoy being together and it’s just fun with the team. I guess it just comes natural. All we do is laugh and joke around.”
At least once a month, the entire team goes to church together as faith, Tookes said, is a key ingredient to their success.
“The ride that we’re on wouldn’t be possible without our faith in God,” Jackson said.
Then, the team is always hanging out together, whether it’s going out to eat after a game, or sitting together and cheering on the boys team.
“They love each other and love being together,” Tookes said. “I’ve never had a team like this. You always have one or two players who don’t like each other. We may have that now, but I don’t know about it. These girls love being with each other.”
Tookes said she knew this season was going to be special. During the summer, she scheduled the hardest offseason possible. They played 43 games in 30 days, winning 39 of them. They played powerhouse Kendrick High of Columbus as well as top-ranked Wesleyan High of Norcross.
Then they attended camps at Florida State and Florida, playing some of the top programs in the Southeast.
About halfway through practice on Monday, Tookes has the players line up on the baseline, then she puts her proverbial “game-face” on.
“We’re not changing anything, we’re just going to fine tune it,” she said. “We’ve got to get it right.”
The thing Tookes wants her players to fine tune is their defense. She’s old-school and knows that even on a night when scoring may be off, the Lady Hornets can still win with defense.
“She wants us to work on the little things like boxing out, rebounding and running the floor,” Jackson said. “Coach Tookes doesn’t care about scoring … she cares about how we play. She’s getting us ready for the state tournament. She wants us to have fun, but play our game, too.”
For Tookes, coaching is a way she can plant positive seeds. While she would like nothing more than to cap an undefeated season and win the school’s first state basketball championship since 1997, she cares more about developing complete players off the court.
“Basketball is my ministry,” said Tookes, a devout Christian. “I just want them to become that complete person. Basketball is a great game. You’re going to have obstacles that are going to set you back just like in life. But life is a lot like basketball in the sense that you never how the ball is going to bounce.”
So far, the ball has bounced in Pelham’s favor.