He's had better players and better teams, but Hephzibah girls basketball coach Wendell Lofton has not had a better opportunity.
An opportunity to turn a young Lady Rebels team - which has one senior and four juniors - into a squad of champions. An opportunity for which he's waited 23 years.
What makes this team different from all the rest? Assistant coach Kim Schlein has a guess: The Lady Rebels have taken on Lofton's persona.
"He lives basketball," said Schlein, who has coached seven seasons with Lofton. "He breathes it, and he knows it. He passes it onto the team. That's their attitude now."
The Lady Rebels (29-4) will have the opportunity to show off their knowledge and skill today, when they face Mays (20-10) at 3 p.m. for the Georgia High School Association Class AAAA championship at Alexander Memorial Coliseum in Atlanta.
For Lofton, a victory would validate a career that has produced more than 500 wins and several Division I players, including LeCoe Willingham (Auburn), Joeanne Aluka (Middle Tennessee State) and Jennifer East (Samford).
For his players, a victory would be the ultimate prize for the coach they love.
"There's a lot of other schools we play that lose a lot," junior point guard Chantal Murray said. "A lot of the players want to come to Hephzibah just so they can play for coach Lofton."
It's because Lofton loves the game.
"He's such a mentor and a father to them," Schlein said. "They know the game of basketball more than most teams they play, because of his knowledge."
The Lady Rebels will try to make it pay off today as they attempt to erase the 66-46 debacle against Glenn Hills in the 2002 championship game.
But why shouldn't they? Although Lofton reminds his players weekly how young they are, they say with his guidance they've learned not to be afraid of any team they play.
"It was a rebuilding season, but we're not scared of anybody," Murray said. "It's not coached, but (Lofton) brings it out of us. He tells us you can only go as far as you push."
That attitude has put Hephzibah on the cusp of greatness, and it shows in every game.
It shows when Joycelyn Nelson boxes out a taller opponent for an offensive rebound, it shows when Murray out-hustles the opposing point guard for a steal, and it shows when a Lady Rebel hits the floor to corral a loose ball.
"I've had some better teams - some much better teams - than this one," Lofton said. "But this team is just scrappy."
A team that seems to take after its coach.
"He's a father to them, he's a coach, he's whatever they need," Schlein said. "The girls want to win the title for him. The girls want him to have it."
Reach Josh Katzowitz at (706) 823-3216 or email@example.com.
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