HEPHZIBAH, Ga. -- Wendell Lofton scrambles into the gym shortly after 2:30 p.m. to get his team ready for another gruelling practice.
Even though he doesn't look like he's ready for practice, clad in blue jeans, a blue vest and wearing a Hephzibah baseball cap, Lofton gears up for what he does best -- coaching girls basketball.
"Hurry up, ya'll get changed and get out here," Lofton calmly tells a group of girls.
The group Lofton tells is his Hephzibah Lady Rebels, a team that is 16-0 this season and one of the best girls basketball teams in the Augusta area.
Lofton appears to be stern, almost resembling a strict disciplinarian. His players know that when he speaks, they better listen. And even though the relationship between the coach and the players isn't always a happy marriage, they respect him just like they would their father.
Lofton's discipline is part of the biggest reason Hephzibah's Lady Rebel basketball team has developed a strong basketball tradition, not to mention helping develop some of the best girls' basketball talent in the state.
There's Brandy Hicks at UNC-Charlotte, Joanne Aloka at Middle Tennessee State, Itoro Umoh at Clemson and LeCoe Willingham, a senior post player who will play with Auburn next season.
But this team is more than just Willingham. There's junior forward April Clyburn, junior guard Jennifer East and freshmen Atiyah Scott and Tamara Gilyard.
In Lofton's 23 seasons at the school, he's accomplished everything there is on the basketball court -- except a coveted state title. However, some think this may be the team that can achieve the ultimate goal and bring home the school's first state basketball title.
Each game, fans ask the questions. How good is this team? Can this team be beaten? Do they have what it takes to win it all?
"This isn't the best team I've ever had," Lofton said. "Those teams with Suzanne Mischell, Pam Miller and Dewayna Jones, they were something else. One of those teams was 23-0 and lost in the first round of the region tournament in the mid-1980's."
This year's edition is the top-ranked team in the Atlanta Tipoff Club's basketball poll and have yet to be tested so far this season. Their stiffest test of the season comes Tuesday night when they host Laney in a nonregion contest.
"We can be beaten anytime," Willingham said. "We just want to work hard to achieve our goal."
"Winning the region title is our goal," Clyburn added. "We want to take it one step at the time."
Willingham, a dominant senior post player who is averaging 22 points and 13 rebounds per contest, draws most of the headlines. But no player on the team prefers to be singled out, instead focusing on playing as a team.
"Having seen all the teams in my four years here, I think this is the year," said Willingham, who was a freshman in 1996 when the Lady Rebels lost in the state championship game.
"Last year (when Hephzibah lost in the second round to East Coweta) was kind of disappointing. We were just starting to really get to know each other. We lost two seniors from last year and I think this team is starting to gel."
Clyburn and Gilyard combine with Willingham to add size and strength on the inside game, while East and Scott are quick and run the floor exceptionally well. Both Clyburn (12 ppg) and Gilyard (14 ppg) average 10 rebounds per game, while East is averaging over 10 assists per contest.
"Jennifer is the glue that sticks us together," Lofton said. "She's a shooting guard, but she passes like a point guard. Atiyah pushes the ball for us."
But winning may be last on Lofton's priority list. He expects excellent grades in the classroom and he would like to see each of his players play in college.
"In everything I do, he pushes me to work harder," said Clyburn, who is already being recruited by Clemson, Vanderbilt, Kansas, Miami and Georgetown. "His goal is to get us into college."
But wondering how good this team really is will have to wait at least for now. The Lady Rebels have seven games left with the region tournament to follow before they can even think about a state title.
"As far as ball handling and breaking the press, this team is about as good as any that I've ever had," Lofton said. "That's been our Achilles' heel all year long."
Tim Morse covers high school sports for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached At (706) 823-3612.
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