But considering that 80 percent of the starters weren’t talking to each other when the season began, the Lady Patriots’ road to the Final Four in Class AAA was longer and more impressive than it looks.
“At the beginning of the year I didn’t think it would be this way,” coach Ivory Hugee said. “We had some friends with animosity toward each other and had to have one of those player meetings where I did all the talking. But once the basketballs came out, all those little petty things went by the wayside and we were all on the same page.”
With only two seniors on the team – Telissa Mills and Ritzy Griffin, a transfer from Curtis Baptist – the girls promised their coach they’d keep the drama to a minimum. Instead, they’ve channeled it onto the court with a school-record 27 wins and its first berth in the state semifinals. For a program that’s never won more than 18 games or advanced past the second round of the postseason, it’s a very big leap.
“We were blessed to have some really good talent,” said Hugee, in his sixth season at the Lady Patriots helm. “This year we just happened to have a group of girls who are very athletic and love to play. It all kind of came together.”
Hugee realized this team’s potential when it won its first Christmas tournament in the school’s history. The Lady Patriots claimed the title in Santee, S.C., despite two starters being absent for family reasons.
“I knew right then after the Christmas tournament that we could be pretty
special because we had people step up,” Hugee said.
Westside passed another huge test on the road against Region 1 top seed Crisp County, rallying in the final quarter for a 43-42 victory to get past the second-round ceiling. That set up a very meaningful showdown with regional powerhouse Hephzibah and its legendary coach Wendell Lofton.
For Hugee, who taught and coached at Hephzibah before going to Westside 13 years ago, it was a very big deal.
“When I took over the girls program here, I told them I wanted us to be like Hephzibah – the way they work hard and the commitment to team and program,” Hugee said. “If we can do the same thing at some point we can be a pretty good program.”
While Hugee says his coaching style is gleaned from many role models including former Hephzibah boys coach Julian Allen and Westside boys coach Marvin Fields, it was Lofton’s example that he incorporates most with his girls.
“I always would hang around the gym and watch coach Lofton and what he would do,” Hugee said. “When you have a guy who’s won that many games, you can’t help but watch what was going on. I told him after the game that he taught me pretty much everything I know about the girls game just watching him.”
One of those lessons was dealing with the very issues that started the season. Coaching girls is not the same as coaching the boys as a football defensive coordinator. It takes a firm but understanding hand that Lofton has mastered.
“That’s how we coach,” Lofton said. “All the frustrations that they come to you with, you put that aside at practice and on the bus to the game and come together as a team. You’ve got to be firm but let them know that you love them no matter how many mistakes they make. That’s growing them to be young ladies as well as good athletes.”
While the Lady Patriots victory against Hephzibah was a huge step, it only gets tougher from here. To win a state title, Westside will most likely have to beat the past two Class AAA champions. On deck Thursday night at 7 p.m. at the Macon Coliseum in 2010 state champion Columbia. The other semifinal game features reigning champs Washington County, riding a perfect 62-game winning streak over the past two seasons.
Washington County (30-0) crushed Westside 64-48 in the region championship at Josey.
“The thing we worry about is that these people have been there and this is new territory for us,” Hugee said. “That was the same concern going against Hephzibah, and we were kind of awestruck in the first half before settling down. We feel like we’re prepared for what we have to face. The girls will fight hard, won’t quit and we’ll just see what happens.”
No matter what, Hugee has brought the Westside girls a long way from their trivial squabbles before the season to make them a winner. For that, Hugee’s old mentor has great praise.
“I’m lonely today because I’m not practicing,” Lofton said. “But I’m so proud of him and so proud of his program.”