The Bulloch Academy Lady Gator basketball team is preparing for Friday night’s GISA AAA semifinals in Americus. The good thing for the Gators is history is on their side, as the last two times the Gators advanced to the final four they not only won, they ended up winning the state title as well.
The last time the Gators made it to the semifinals was when they won back-to-back state championships in 2014 - 15 seasons. Current Lady Gator head coach Chandler Dennard was around then, but was coaching the boys, while Paul Webb was the girls coach.
“I feel like that culture of winning is back at Bulloch Academy,” said Dennard. “When coach Webb was here with the girls, and I was doing the boys, we both made it to the final four in 2010. Many of these girls played for a state softball championship last year. When you start winning, and you get a taste for that, they want to keep that going. That’s how you build a program.”
The Gators looked like a shoo-in to go far this year as they started the season 18-2, but illnesses and injuries crept up, and the possibilities of making a late state playoff run started to wane. The Gators lost four of six games, including the region championship to Pinewood.
“Things were looking good till about the end of January,”Dennard said. “We were really in a groove, then the injuries started piling up, and things kind of snowballed. We seem to have righted the ship though the past couple games. We aren’t 100 percent healthy, but the girl’s see the finish line - especially those three seniors - and they are going to suck it up and go.”
Seniors Janna Beth Marsh, Abby Newton and Regan Ellis were all a part of the softball team that advanced to the state title game a year ago. This time they are not only wanting to get there, but they are ready to win the whole thing.
“I was able to be on the bench as a seventh grader watching the 2015 win the state championship,” said Newton. “It’s always been my dream to be able to hold up that championship trophy, and we have an opportunity to get one step closer Friday.”
“I feel like we have a lot of pieces on this team, and things have really fit together so perfectly this year,” said Marsh. “Everybody knows their job, and they do their job in practice, whether it’s playing defense, scoring rebounding we all take pride in what we do well.”
The three seniors also missed some time with injuries at different parts of the season, but feel in many ways that may have helped them.
“I know for me, having to help out at guard not only improved my ball handling, but my shooting as well,” said Ellis. “I think we have all had to do some things that weren’t comfortable for us, and that has really helped our depth.”
That is a sentiment Dennard agrees with.
“When we had our problems, it not only changed roles, it also gave younger kids playing time,” Dennard said. “Freshman like Sophie Wall, and Sophie Strickland, as well as Mary Mac Powell and Ashantay Noble all got playing time they may not of otherwise had. It helped our depth, and we may need those kids to step up this week.”
As for Friday night’s opponent, the Gators go up against 26-3 Deerfield Windsor. The Knights come in on a 10 game win streak including a 44-27 win in the state quarterfinals against Trinity.
“They are really athletic, and are going to put pressure on us for 32 minutes,” Dennard said. “Their coach is Gina Mitchell, and this is her first year there, but she has won a lot of state titles, including at Westwood. She knows how to prepare her kids, and I expect them to be fully ready for us.”
The Gators and the Knights are scheduled for a 7:30 start Friday night in Americus at the Storm Dome on the Georgia Southwestern campus.