Hephzibah girls basketball coach Wendell Lofton will see his players eating together in the lunchroom. He'll notice how they walk side-by-side in the school hallways, how one Lady Rebel will help another with her algebra homework.
It makes his heart skip a beat.
"They show that unconditional love toward each other," Lofton says while Hephzibah runs through dribbling drills at a recent practice, "and it just does something to me."
In the Lady Rebels season-opening 74-44 win against Josey last Saturday, one thing stuck in his mind.
Victoria Burch, a junior, was struggling through the first half, and Lofton was about to show her to a seat on the bench.
But her Hephzibah teammates came to her defense, imploring Lofton to leave the junior in the game to untangle her problems. A show of unselfishness, perhaps. A show of love, definitely.
"That's what this program is about," Lofton said. "I try to get them to care about each other."
Said senior Michele Johnson: "If we didn't love each other, I don't know how we'd get along. We consider each other family."
One of Hephzibah's biggest obstacles this season is overcoming the loss - the abandonment, if you will - of two family members.
Joycelyn and Jacquelyn Nelson - who averaged 25 points last year for Hephzibah and helped lead the Lady Rebels to the Class AAAA state championship finals the past two seasons - transferred to Laney before the summer.
Left in their wake is a pretty solid Hephzibah team that refuses to dwell on the loss, although Chantal Murray, who is good friends with the twins, still is coping.
"I'm still not used to it," the senior point guard said. "It's been a real big change. Seventh grade was my first time playing basketball, and they have always been there with me. Knowing this is my last year, it's hard to play without them."
But Murray - and the rest of her Lady Rebels teammates - will.
Don't be surprised, in fact, if Hephzibah becomes a more balanced squad without the Nelson twins.
Although they provided strong leadership and much of the team's offensive production the past two seasons, they weren't the entire team - plenty of other players contributed.
Take Tiffany Drayton as an example.
In the state championship game last year - a contest in which Hephzibah had a nine-point lead in the second quarter before Mays came back to win 49-44 in overtime - Drayton led the team with 15 points and scored the last eight for the Lady Rebels.
Against Josey in the season opener, she led both squads with 16.
"(The Nelsons) were players, but we've still got nine or 10 people that can still play ball," Murray said. "Going to the state championship game the last two seasons was a good experience, and we're going to make it back."
After all, love makes anything possible.
"Jacquelyn and Joycelyn gave us a lot of love," Lofton said. "They made us become a unit. We're starting to grow into that now."
Reach Josh Katzowitz at (706) 823-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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