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Once Central teammates, Chester and Richards now opponents
FCN REUNION 012914 web
North Georgias Keely Chester, left, and Columbus States Kayla Richards played basketball together from the age of 2. Now, theyre opponents in the college ranks. - photo by Photos by Bill Akin

Perhaps it will be Keeley Chester first to make the on-court encounter with Kayla Richards and throw much of the crowd tonight in Memorial Hall at the University of North Georgia into inner turmoil.

When Chester’s North Georgia women’s basketball team hosts Richards and Columbus State at 5:30 p.m., a whole community of alliances will be strained – the church that raised them since they were 2, the high school team where they both became 1,000-point scorers, the families who have known each other for who knows how long.

What if Chester blows by Richards for a lay-up or steps back to stick a jump shot? Nothing to do but hope Richards returns the favor on the other end.

"I guess it’s kind of awkward for them because they don’t know who to root for," Richards said. "It is kind of tough to know what side to sit on or what colors to wear."

Chester and Richards were teammates under Coach Andy Martin during one of Central’s most successful runs in school history. With Christy Hewitt, Emma Kane and others, they helped the Lady Bulldogs reach three straight state tournament appearances and win a playoff game for the first time in 26 years.

"They were fine young ladies," Martin said. "Great students, strong character, strong work ethic. They were the type of kids you wanted in your program. Add to that the fact they were both very talented basketball players."

Now, they are college sophomores and key contributors for their respective teams.

Chester averages 12.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and a team-high 3.6 assists a game for a North Georgia team that is 14-3 overall and sits atop the Peach Belt Conference West Division at 8-2.

Richards averages 15.8 minutes a game and is shooting 34.3 percent from three-point range, while Columbus State is 12-4 overall and sits just a game back from North Georgia in the standings at 7-3.

"They’re a great team," Chester said. "I think it’ll be a great game."

"It’s really big," Richards said of tonight’s game. "They’re sitting at the top of the conference right now. It would be a big, big win if we could knock them off."

This was never a dilemma for Chester and Richards. Since they first met at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church at 2 years old where Richards’ father was the pastor for 18 years, they played on different teams just once, when Chester was a freshman at North Forsyth.

Basketball and friendship were intertwined. They played rec ball together at Dobbs Creek, middle school, AAU with the Atlanta Cagers, then high school. Richards was the straight forward one, the "lunch pail type of kid," according to Martin. Chester was "a free spirit," Martin said, the one cutting up with players and coaches at practice.

On the court, they developed unmatched chemistry. By their senior year – when they went 20-10, beat Salem in the Class AAAA first round and lost to eventual state champion Miller Grove, 52-45 – no two teammates knew each other’s tendencies so well.

"We had just gotten so used to playing with one another," Chester said. "She knew what I was going to do. I knew what she was going to do. She was always there for me if I needed an outlet. Then, after high school ended, it was like, well, I don’t have that security on the court anymore."

Slowly, they’ve begun to feel that security again with new teammates and coaches in new environments.

Chester and the Lady Nighthawks won 10 straight games at one point but have lost two of their last four. Chester has played more forward since leading scorer Jaymee Carnes tore her ACL on Jan. 4 and was lost for the season.

Richards and the Lady Cougars began the year 5-0, lost three of their next six games but have won five out of six going into tonight’s game. Richards moved to small forward this season, her more natural position, but has endured shooting struggles the past four games.

"They both have grown so much as players since they got out of high school that’s almost hard to recognize them," Martin said. "They can just do so many different things. They’ve gotten really coached up well in college."

When the teams warm up an hour before tip-off, Chester and Richards will get a few minutes to talk. When the game is over, they’ll get a few more in the midst of a reunion of sorts with families from home and church and former coaches and teammates.

Then, they’ll go their separate ways. They both have games Saturday, after all. This is the new routine for Chester and Richards.

Two and a half years after playing together for the last time, they’ve just started to get comfortable as opponents.

"It was definitely weird last year," Richards said. "But it’s fun. It’s a fun rivalry."