History in the making
Lady Hawks set for first trip to GISA Final Four
by Doug Gorman
(Editor’s Note: Coming Friday: Heritage’s four seniors reflect on march to GISA Class AAA Final Four)
The Heritage School girls basketball program is about to set sail into uncharted waters.
Never before have the Lady Hawks advanced to the GISA Class AAA Final Four, but that all changed last week when Heritage upended Southland 52-29 in the Elite 8 to secure its reservations to Mercer University.
Now with two more wins, Heritage could finish the script with the school’s first girls basketball title.
Top-ranked Stratford Academy (27-3) stands in the way of 25-3 Heritage moving on to Saturday championship. The semifinal between the Lady Cavaliers and Lady Hawks is set for Friday at 7 p.m inside Mercer’s University Center.
“I don’t really think it has sunk in with the girls on how big an accomplishment this is,” second-year Heritage coach Derrick Clay said. “They have just taken each game one at a time. Maybe it will sink in when we get to Mercer and they see this will be the biggest crowd they have ever played in front of.”
The Lady Eagles captured the Region 2-AAA title, while Heritage rolled into the 16-team field as the 1-AAA champions amidst its own 17-game win streak that included going undefeated against region foes this season.
It will be the second meeting this year between the two Final Four participants.
Stratford won the first meeting, handing the Lady Hawks’ their worst loss of the year with a 49-28 decision, but that’s all past history as far as Heritage is concerned.
The Lady Hawks suffered from more than just cold shooting in the first meeting between the two teams.
A visit from the injury bug also took a bite out of Heritage as Lillie Smith was hurt forcing her to miss seven games.
Now healthy, Smith had returned as one of the team’s leading scorers along with freshman Kara Groover. The two have regularly scored in double figures.
“That was a bad night for us in a lot of ways, but I think we grew from it,” Clay said when reflecting back on the first loss to Stratford. “Lillie got hurt in that game, and Kara only scored four points, but we were still in it until late in the contest.”
Clay realizes it will almost be a home-court advantage for Stratford.
“We know Stratford is going to have a big crown since the game is in Macon,” he said. “There are going to be some ups and downs, but with 32 minutes of basketball, we know anything can happen. If we play like we know we can, we have a chance to win.
The Lady Hawks have been waiting for the rematch since walking off the court after the losing to Stratford three days into the new year.
“After that first game, I asked the girls if Stratford was one of the teams we had to beat to win the state title, how do you feel about that, and they felt great,” he said.
Should the Lady Hawks pull the upset and beat the top-ranked Lady Eagles, they could face Bulloch Academy, the school where Clay coached before taking a teaching and coaching position at Heritage.
Bulloch plays its Final Four contest against Westfield immediately after the Heritage-Stratford game at 8:30.
“There will be a lot of people from Bulloch pulling for us to win,” Clay said.
Heritage set the stage for its state tournament run with a 42-33 win over Holy Spirit Academy in the region title game two weeks ago.
It was the first time Heritage won a region crown since 2007 and just the second in the school’s 40-year history.
Stellar defense has been the cornerstone for the Lady Hawks’ most successful season, and it could be a factor in the Lady Hawks hopes for an upset.
Heritage has held 15 opponents under 30 points, and five to 10 points or less.
“We know it is important to play really good defense, but we are going to have to hit some open shots on the other end too.
Heritage has ridden the leadership of seniors Amanda Windom, Ansley Dieckmann, Abbie Farr and Kaitlyn Squires to the winning season, and they will play a factor if the Lady Hawks hope to move to the Class AAA championship.
“Our younger players have really followed their lead,” he said.
After the outcome of the first game with the Lady Eagles, Clay thinks Stratford might be overconfident.
“We know what to expect” Clay said. “We think Stratford might underestimate us, and we hope they do.”