The South Side Lady Hawks girls’ basketball team walked single file into the room with the Madison County Commission and County department heads Monday morning.
Everyone in the room stood to their feet and gave the Lady Hawks a standing ovation that lasted for nearly a minute.
Madison County Mayor A.J. Massey read a joint proclamation from him and Jackson Mayor Scott Conger recapping their season and their accomplishments.
Class 3A state champions. Undefeated. Rarely challenged in the fourth quarter.
While the occasion celebrated what this team did in the previous four months, it was actually a time when years of work came to fruition.
The season capped a 12-year journey from the mediocre program struggling to get out of the district tournament that McNeal inherited in 2011 to the dominant champion that received a standing ovation from most of Madison County’s elected officials and department heads.
Whether it was Albany Collins’ speedy moves down the court with enough speed while dribbling the ball to outrun everyone who wasn’t trying to bounce a ball too or Jaidynn Askins’ confrontationally tough play under the basket or Ti’Mia Lawson’s ability to get opponents out of position for an easy pass and basket for herself, the Lady Hawks proved themselves to be a team with plenty of options.
“Each player brings something different to this team, and we try to use those strengths to our advantage as often as we can,” said McNeal.
While Collins, Askins and Lawson was a formidable three-headed monster by themselves, everything with the offense started with Jakarrah Anderson at the point.
“When you think about it, it wasn’t just offense that she started for us,” McNeal said about the senior point guard. “As much as we press, she’s usually the first person in someone’s face when they get the ball in-bounds or get a rebound.
“She’s the one setting the tone for us on every defensive possession.”
Kimora Currie provided another option for scoring and rebounding from the guard position.
“There were a few games – like the substate game against Murfreesboro Central – when she would give us a big 3-point shot or two to give us momentum when we needed it,” McNeal said. “She hit two in a row there in the second quarter that started our run to pull away in that one.”
Add to the starting lineup the first two girls coming off the bench – Akira Lacy and Felicity Long – and the Lady Hawks proved themselves unstoppable this past year.
So what was the secret to the success this year? McNeal said competition among the players in practice was probably the biggest thing.
“The only time our starters play together is in games,” McNeal said. “They’re playing against each other in practice because iron sharpens iron.
“And you see how competitive they are during games. That competitive nature doesn’t drop at all in practice. They look like they want to beat each other as badly as they want to beat any opponent they play against together.”
McNeal said that competitiveness in practice fortunately never fostered any negative feelings in the locker room.
“They’re competitors. They love to compete,” McNeal said. “They don’t just want to compete 30 times a year during games.
“So they get to compete against each other every day in practice from October until March and during whatever work we get in during the offseason and summer camps.”
And while the full-court defensive pressure might’ve been the foundation for the undefeated championship, the competitiveness was the blueprint that showed them how hard they needed to push themselves and each other to get to where they wanted to go – and ultimately landed with a championship trophy.
“The work we’ve put in going all the way back to last year when we lost here [in Murfreesboro in the state championship game], this is why we did it,” Collins said after the win over Livingston Academy.
McNeal tried to challenge that competitiveness with as tough as schedule as possible.
That’s why the Lady Hawks traveled to Florida for a tournament the week between Christmas and New Year’s. They played a team from Alabama with a couple of NCAA Division I signees on it in the Dynamix Hoopfest at University School of Jackson in December. They played a tough squad from St. Louis in Shelby County in January.
A trip to Class 2A semifinalist Gibson County in November has been a mainstay on South Side’s schedule for years, and that was followed by an early matchup against Division II-A contender Trinity Christian.
South Side did a home-and-home series with eventual Class 1A champion McKenzie in January.
Those four wins came by an average of 25 points – two by 24 points and the other two by 26.
They also scrimmaged Bartlett, the Class 4A runner-up, in the summer.
“The best way to make a team better is to play the best competition possible,” McNeal said before the state tournament. “A lot of people may look at our schedule and think we’re not playing tough teams because we’re winning a lot of our games by a lot, but we’ve had a good year.”
And that’s not taking into account four games against state semifinalist and district rival South Gibson.
The Lady Hornets gave South Side its closest final point margin (three) in a 55-52 game in Medina on Jan. 24. When the teams met again 10 days later in Jackson, the Lady Hawks played like a team with something to prove in a 68-52 win.
When they met again 15 days later in the district championship, the Lady Hawks broke a tie in the second quarter by outscoring the Lady Hornets 30-16 the rest of the way.
Then their final meeting in the region championship was the epitome of how the team handled adversity.
Up by 13 in the second quarter at Chester County, the game had to be moved down the street to Freed-Hardeman University’s Sports Center because of a leak right at midcourt at the high school.
After about a 45-minute break from the action, the Lady Hawks took over and ran away to a 38-point win.
“We learned to deal with adversity,” McNeal said after the championship. “Whether it was dealing with a change of venue or our bus breaking down on the way to Murfreesboro or dealing with the problems Upperman, Elizabethton and Livingston Academy all posed to us … this team is a group of players who’ve learned how to handle that type of thing.
“And it’s great to be a champion. It’s great to finish undefeated. But to have seen what these girls have dealt with and watched first-hand how they handled it, I’m not surprised at all by anything they’ve accomplished. They’ve earned this, and I’m proud of them.”
Brandon Shields, email@example.com