CLAXTON — For the last couple of years, the Claxton High School girls basketball team has watched on as its counterparts on the boys team made postseason runs. Not content to simply look on any longer, the girls are now right in the middle of the party.
Heading into this season, no player on the Lady Tigers’ roster had experienced a winning season at the high school level. Now, with the regular season entering its final weeks, Claxton is sitting at 13-4 (5-1 in Region 3-A) and is in prime position to make a run at the state playoffs.
“Our team has really come together,” CHS coach Laura Aziz said. “We’ve got a group of seniors who have stepped things up and some younger girls who have contributed right away.”
One Tiger that has keyed the run is senior Polly Murray.
Murray has starred throughout her career at Claxton, leading the team in scoring in each of the last three seasons. Her ability to score from anywhere on the floor, battle for rebounds and play lockdown defense has been instrumental. With one double-double performance after another, Murray is a serious contender for the Region 3-A Player of the Year award.
“Polly’s been a rock for us,” Aziz said. “Whatever we’ve needed her to do, she’s stepped up and done. I really love that we’re having this success for Polly and everyone else’s sake.”
Murray’s heroics aside, one of the biggest reasons for Claxton’s quick turnaround is that it is much more than a one-woman team.
Three other seniors — Deetra Williams and sisters Brittney and Whitney Ponder — have made the Tigers a deep and threatening squad.
“I think the biggest thing is thing is that everyone has realized and embraced their roles,” Aziz said.
The Claxton coach was especially complimentary of the Ponder sisters, who starred in their sophomore season before missing all of last year and then rejoining the team for their final year.
“It can be tough for kids to change roles,” Aziz said. “To go from starting all of the time to helping us coming off the bench — that’s a big change, but they’ve handled it well and are giving us a lot of good minutes late in games.”
The Ponders' return, Murray’s dominance, and breakout performances by younger Tigers like freshman guard Jazimine Price have formed a perfect storm — one Aziz says started to form near the end of last season.
“For a few years, we didn’t have the record to advance to the region tournament,” Aziz said. “Last season, the rules changed and we got in. Not only that, but we won our first game.
“That gave our team a big boost and a lot of confidence. They carried that into the summer and we really grew a lot. We’ve just continued to improve and it’s gotten us some wins this year.”
And those wins haven’t come against slouches.
Mired in the middle of a tough sub-region schedule, the Tigers have already notched wins over Savannah Christian and Savannah Country Day, both of which have been to the state semifinals in the last three seasons. Claxton seems to have the edge on both schools this season, but still had to fight.
“Those schools have good traditions and great fundamentals,” Aziz said. “Even if they’re a little down, they still expect to win. That’s what we’re learning to do right now. Our girls are up to the challenge and we know that we can accomplish some things up ahead, but we just want to keep moving forward one game at a time.”
Claxton faces a big test tonight as it plays host to Calvary Day, which handed the Tigers their only sub-region loss Jan. 10. From there, Claxton will look to stay at the top of the region standings to earn a bye in the region tournament in mid-February.
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.