The setting is the 2010 4A State Championship, where New Albany, the state’s top team and undefeated North Half Champion, falls to Raymond; the team’s only loss of the season. From that moment on, there was only one goal on the minds of the Lady Bulldogs, particularly the eight girls who would be seniors: to make it back to Jackson and finish the job.
“It was heartbreaking,” Micha Washington said.
“It was like, if we had another chance, we would want to go back and do it again and win,” teammate Nyambi Penson added.
Along with Washington and Penson, six other girls (Porche White, Kebrina Lucas, Paris Sanders, Caroline Stroud, Marquita Young and Jasmine Knox) did just that this season, capping their careers at New Albany with the 4A Championship.
But this is far from the beginning of the story for this group. The potential of this class was seen well before they even played in their first varsity game. As eighth graders, the girls went a perfect 21-0, and at that point were encouraged to stick together.
“I remember when the coaches sat us down after that season and told us that we could do this if we stayed together,” White said. “And we did. It was worth it in the end.”
Not only did the group stay together, but in three years, they accomplished several feats:
-88-10 overall record (89.8 winning percentage)
-Three Division 1-4A Tournament Championships (‘09, ‘10, ‘11)
-26-1 record in division play
-Two North Half Championships (‘10, ‘11)
-Completed the 2011 season undefeated versus Mississippi teams (27-0)
-Three Union County Tournament Championships (‘09,‘10, ‘11)
“Usually coaches don’t have the opportunity to have eight girls stay the entire four years, and I’ve been blessed to have most start their freshman year and all their sophomore year,” Head Coach John Stroud said. “They’ll definitely be missed on the court and off the court.”
In an attempt to better prepare themselves for this year’s state tournament, Stroud strengthened the schedule, which saw the Lady ‘Dawgs traveling to Arkansas for a national tournament, as well as taking on Memphis Central and Bob Jones in local tournaments.
“We just came back to school and just went at it, playing harder teams, out of state teams,” White said.
Dropping four games this season may have seemed like a let down considering their undefeated regular season mark in 2010, but the girls were in agreement that the end result is all that matters, even if they endured a loss or two along the way.
“I think it taught us how to take a loss and that we were beatable, but we can win, too,” White said. “In those loses, we were playing bad, but despite that, we only lost by like five or 10 points, so it wasn’t because we were terrible, it’s just that we couldn’t finish.”
“They were physical, but we didn’t play to our full potential,” Penson added “Had we done that, I feel like we could have beaten them.”
New Albany also played under immense pressure, as they were the state’s top ranked team for the entire season. Game in and game out, it was a tougher season than most fans realize.
“The expectations were high and the pressure was tough,” White said. “We would have a lot of turnovers or a rough game, and people would be disappointed in us, and that’s what we battled throughout the season.”
Having a coach with experience in these situations helped the girls, as they knew Stroud was once in their shoes when he played at West Union.
“It’s like we all had that ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’ attitude, but with him, he really knows what he’s talking about,”Penson said. “To me, he’s a great coach.”
“He’s always pushed us hard, and this year especially, he knew what he was doing,” Lucas added.
Spending your high school career with the same people day in and day out can bring drama and conflict, but for the girls, it has been nothing but fun memories.
“During North Half, Porche made a pass to Jazmine and she made a layup, then Porche screamed and showed emotion, and that was the first time I had seen that from her; getting us fired up. It felt good to see a teammate show emotion like that,” Penson said of one of her fondest memories.
“It’s hard to pinpoint just one memory because all we do is laugh,” Washington said.
This senior class is loaded with talent, but are all currently undecided on their futures with basketball. One thing is for certain, that last week’s championship has fueled these girls for more.
“After competing and winning this, it makes me want more and I don’t want to stop,” Penson said. “If someone approaches me and asks me to play next year, I’ll do it.”
As for Stroud, he will have one starter returning in Jazmine Spears, and will now have the task of filling the shoes of one of the most talented classes to come through New Albany.
“I think it will be a long time before anyone sees the talent these eight seniors have,” he said. “They’re all good students, they’re all going to graduate and go to college next year. They’ve been good models on and off the court, and they’ll be missed.”
-This story appears in the “Champs” special section in Wednesday's Gazette.