The Stephenson High School girls basketball team members still the taste of defeat in their mouths eight months after losing to Hill Grove High School by two points, 50-48, in the Class AAAA second-round playoff game.
Even after eight months, senior forward and team captain Kaliyah Mitchell said the loss still hurts.
“All of the hard work you put in and to know that you came short, it felt like if we and worked a little harder we probably would have gotten a little further,” Mitchell said.
But the loss has been a positive for the team this year, according to co-captain and senior guard Kyana Johnson.
“It helped us for this year,” she said.
That motivational factor has led the Lady Jaguars to early success with a 12-1 record. Head coach Dennis Watkins said the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team is its selflessness and commitment to winning.
“This offseason they have been working hard,” he said. “They came back this year and we’re trying to put it back together and keep it going. So far, we’re doing pretty good. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Stephenson, which has won state titles in 2004 and 2008, is in a region (6-AAAAA) with past state champions, including defending state Class AAAA champions Miller Grove. Mitchell said being in a region with past champions such as Miller Grove, Southwest DeKalb, and North Atlanta gives them extra motivation.
“Just knowing that you’re playing teams that have won championships, that motivates you more to go out there and give it your all and win,” she said.
Watkins also recognized how tough the region is and knows team members have their work cut out for them this season.
“We’re just trying to keep it going, trying to stay healthy, stay focused, and take care of business,” he said.
Another thing that has got this team on a winning streak is its defense. Stephenson is only allowing 40 points per game.
“We preach defense,” Watkins said. “If you can stop somebody from scoring then that makes it a lot easier for you. Sometimes you can struggle with your offense, but the defense is what’s going to win.”
Johnson said they also worked on their 3-point shooting, which was a weakness for them last season.
“Every team wanted to play us in the two-three [zone defense],” she said. “So, we worked on that this year.”
It has helped, because the team is averaging more than 60 points a game. On Dec. 14, the team defeated Dunwoody 96-13. Mitchell said the team takes every game seriously, no matter who it is playing.
“We go out there and just give it our all,” she said. “We remember what happened last and we don’t want the same thing to happen this year.”
The team is working to win a third state title for the school. Watkins said this year’s team reminds him of his 2004 championship team.
“[The 2004 team] was a mixture of seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen,” he said. “So, they kind of put me in mind of that group more than my ’08 team. My ‘08 team had a lot of seniors that were seasoned and they just went out there and took care of business.”
Watkins said it’s still too early to tell if this team can win a state title like the 2004 team.
“We’re just hoping we can stay healthy,” he said. “There’s a lot involved in getting [to the championship game] and you want to make sure everyone stays healthy.”
He added that he tells his team to just take it one game at a time.
“I don’t like looking past anybody,” he said. “This is a tough region. There are some good teams in there, so you want to make sure you’re doing your homework and staying focus.”