North Forsyth head coach Eric Herrick thinks his team grew up over the past week. That's scary, considering the Lady Raiders are off to a 6-0 start.
North knocked off Cherokee, a Class 6A state quarterfinalist from last season, 45-39 at home in the championship final of the Progressive Lighting Holiday Classic on Tuesday night to keep its perfect start to the season alive. Although, perfect isn't a word Herrick wants to hear, but he sure couldn't stop smiling on his home floor after knocking off the Lady Warriors--especially considering they trailed by double-digits in the first quarter.
"Our team grew up tonight. Really the last few games," Herrick said. "We played a very good Northview team (last night) and stifled them, the kids are playing their tails off and we've taken down two ranked teams in a row. We're still just trying to figure what this is all about. Our team isn't anywhere near perfect, but they're a reslient bunch that plays extremely hard."
Even though North returned most of its core from previous seasons while other county teams are adjusting--well, mind you--to new lineups, the Lady Raiders are a team of fluidity themselves. Six freshman make up the bench, with Caroline Martin leading the way (she started Tuesday night), and complement an experienced group that includes Amber Jones, Bella Caracciollo and Maddie Palmer.
But it was a junior who stole the show in the championship game. Cassie Markle, a three-sport athlete who was much more of a role player for North last season, had what Herrick called a "breakthrough" in the home tournament. She scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds against Cherokee, showing off some fundamentally sound spin moves in the post and comfortability around the rim. Markle helped the team surge away in the second half, even icing the game at the line with under 20 seconds to play.
Her efforts earned her the Progressive Lighting Holiday Tournament Most Valuable Player Award, while Martin was named to the all-tournament team, much in part to her 20-point scoring effort Monday night against Northview.
"Cassie has a newfound confidence," Herrick said. "We're going to see the version of her we saw tonight for the rest of the year. She's very talented, but now she's got confidence and is attacking hard. I think it takes a little bit of success to really believe in yourself, and Cassie is always harder on Cassie than anyone else."
The Lady Raiders trailed 24-21 at halftime but focused on attacking out of the post at the start of the third quarter against a Cherokee team that did not boast a true post player--their tallest is Laiken Wade, a 3-point specialist who knocked down five 3-pointers in the game. Kate Ware added seven points, while Caracciollo scored six and Palmer four. Amber Jones and Martin had tough shooting nights, but Jones had two big 3-pointers and Martin added seven points including four free throws.
Martin's composure at the line late in the game also stood out to Herrick.
"We missed 33 free throws in the first game of the tournament, so to hit some clutch ones tonight--that right there shows some of the growth we've made," Herrick said.
The Lady Raiders won't play a region game until Dec. 16, but Herrick still feels like it's already the middle of the season.
"What's crazy is we're 6-0, so we're already a quarter of the way through the year," Herrick said. "I wanted to come into this tournament and see where we were as a team. It's a good measuring stick. Winning it? That didn't really factor in for me because of how many good teams were in it, but these kids every day continue to surpass my expectations."
North took down Alpharetta 41-40, Johns Creek 48-29 and Northview 45-30 to get into the title match.