For the past three years, the girls of the Atlanta Cagers Blue basketball team have tried to duplicate the AAU national title run they made as third graders in 2009.
Last week, the team’s success came full circle.
The sixth grade Cagers Blue claimed the Division I Classic National Championship in Franklin, Tenn., with a 32-19 win over the Texas Blue Devils — the first opponent they ever faced when their squad formed in 2009.
"It’s a great feeling," Cagers fourth-year head coach Ralph Smith said.
"In a sense it’s bigger than the [national championship] we won in 2009."
The core of the team has held intact over the past four years, and four of the 10 girls on this year’s team — Jordan Smith, M.E. Craven, Hannah Sik and Mary Walters — are from Forsyth County.
They helped the Cagers win five games during this year’s 26-team tournament en route to the championship.
"This was the most motivated, hard-working group of kids I’ve ever been around," Smith said.
"These kids push me harder and harder. It’s a great experience."
Smith used to hold a free throw shooting contest during the summer, but was forced to end it after players kept raising the stakes to win.
"I had to call off the contest," Smith said with a laugh.
"The first year we did free throws they made just over 10,000 as a team and the second year they made over 16,500 as a team.
"The third year some girls were going out after practice in the morning and shooting all day out in the sun because they wanted to make more than anyone else. I didn’t want them to all get sunburned and dehydrated trying to win the contest."
In order to qualify for the week-long national tournament, teams had to win a super regional tournament or earn a top-four ranking in their state. The Cagers did both.
They breezed through the bulk of the national tournament, winning games by an average of 15.4 points. The Cagers played against teams from Minnesota, Ohio, Tennessee, California and Texas.
"We have a couple of superstars on the team," Smith said.
"We work on defense all of the time. You can’t have a bad day on defense. You can have a bad shooting game and can still win, but you can’t win with bad defense."
First-year player Jessica Nelson didn’t allow easy shots around the basket. Nelson, who stands 6-foot-1, anchored the defense and averaged 15 points per game. Tory Ozment dominated as she led the Cagers in scoring, assists and steals.
The quarterfinals game against the archrival Tennessee Team Pride-Coleman gave the Cagers a scare.
The Cagers led by 16 points to start the fourth quarter but let the advantage drop to four, before pulling away to win 62-55 and avenging a one-point loss to Tennessee in June.
The Cagers then took care of business against the PAL Alto Midnight squad in the semifinals, cruising to a 50-28 win.
The team was able to explore Nashville and enjoy themselves during the tournament when they weren’t on the basketball court, even playing laser tag one night.
"It was nice for everyone to enjoy it," Smith said. "The heat was brutal though. It hit 110 degrees one day and stayed hot the entire week."
Even though the Cagers have won two national championships in the past four years, Smith thinks this team will still be hungry to play in the title game again next year.
"We always try to make every year better than the last," Smith said.
"If we stay together and keep focused, and have a couple of breaks, we can make it back there. I think they can have what they want. I would be shocked if they didn’t do well in high school."