Following their lead
Seniors help Lady Hawks earn first trip to Final Four
by Doug Gorman
Derrick Clay had been around the GISA coaching block for a decade before arriving at The Heritage School, assisting on a Bulloch Academy basketball lineup that reached the Final Four.
But Clay promised himself he would never attend another high school Final Four basketball game unless one of his teams was on the floor.
The coach is a man of his word.
Clay will finally get a return trip to the Final Four for just the second time Friday when he guides the Heritage School Lady Hawks (25-3) into the Mercer University Center in Macon against top-ranked Stratford Academy (27-3) starting at 7 p.m. The winner advances to Saturday’s championship game, also at 7 p.m.
His first visit came a few years back when he coached at Bulloch Academy during their trip to GISA’s version of the big dance.
Now, he is ready to see if he can help the Region 1-AAA champs make history.
Should Heritage pull off the feat, much of the credit for the Lady Hawks’ success will go to its four seniors — Amanda Windom, Ashley Dieckmann, Abbie Farr and Kaitlyn Squires for helping lead the team on its magical run.
“We have awesome seniors,” Clay said. “The younger girls have followed their lead.”
All four upperclassmen are convinced the Lady Hawks will cut down the nets on Saturday after winning the Class AAA title.
In order for them to bring the state title back to their campus, they are going to have to avenge a 49-28 loss on Jan. 3 to the Lady Eagles in tonight’s semifinal matchup and then win again Saturday night in the finals against either Bulloch or Westfield.
Lillie Smith, one of Heritage’s leading scorers, was hurt in the first meeting between Heritage and Stratford and eventually missed seven game, but as far as the Lady Hawks are concerned that game is ancient history.
“We were shocked when Lillie went down and I think it showed,” Dieckmann said. “Our coach as always said we need to be peaking in February and March, not when we played them in January, and that is what we are doing. We are clicking and playing our best basketball.”
Windom said you can feel the buzz throughout the school thanks to the Lady Hawks’ accomplishments.
“It’s unbelievable,” Windom said. “ It has been a fantastic time playing with these girls. It’s been like family. Really and truly, this is the team I would have picked to go to the Final Four.”
One of the first things Clay had to do when he took the reigns of the program two seasons ago was sell the program to the girls and their parents.
The basketball team was flying under the radar compared to the school’s other athletic successes, which has included recent state titles in baseball, girls and boys tennis, boys and girls soccer, boys and girls cross country and a trip to the Class AAA football championship in 2012.
“I told their parents if you can get a group of young women on the same page with one goal, special things are going to happen, and that what we have right now, thirteen extraordinary women who want the same goal and that’s to win,” Clay said. “It’s been a heck of a ride.”
Despite the team’s prior struggles, Clay, who is also the defensive coordinator on the football team, didn’t hesitate to accept the job as the girls head coach when it was offered.
“We were struggling, but I saw how athletic this team was, and I knew if we worked, we could be good,” Clay said.
One of the things that stands out about this team is they are not roster full of stars.
“You don’t have to have a bunch of superstars, but if you can have a bunch of players who know their roles, you are going to have success,” Clay said. “We really don’t have too many standouts, but I have eight or nine girls who average three or four points and that adds up.”
In addition to their prowess for defense — which includes holding 15 opponents to under 30 points this season — team chemistry has been as much a driving force.
“I left for two years, and came back this season,” Abbie Farr said. There is no other team I would rather play with. We are not only talented on the basketball court, there is not another group of girls I would rather spend time with.”
Like Farr, Squires transferred into the school this season.
She is glad she was convinced to come out for the team and is confident the Lady Hawks are going to finish the job
“Coach always tells us to go out there and play hard and play for each other,” Squires said.
According to Clay, a victory will send a clear message to the rest of GISA.
“A win would really put us on the map,” he said.