When the buzzer sounded on South Forsyth girls basketball’s 53-37 victory over Chattahoochee in the Region 6-AAAAAA tournament last season, Ally Welch jumped into Ashley Hannan’s arms. They had ended an 11-year playoff drought and completed a remarkable one-year turnaround from six wins to 20.
"I’ve never been that excited," Hannan said.
A week later, the Lady War Eagles ran into UNC signee Diamond Deshields and eventual state champion Norcross in an 80-32 loss in the first round of the state tournament. The defeat was swift and resounding.
"We learned that it’s a different level," sophomore K.K. Storms said.
South wants to join that level of teams who are counted on to be in the state playoffs every season, a level the Lady War Eagles are just now beginning to experience again.
South entered Tuesday’s game against Johns Creek at 14-2 overall and 5-1 in the region. Its only losses have come against No. 6-ranked North Forsyth (72-35) and Sparkman (52-45), the top-ranked team in Alabama and No. 23 team in the country, according to MaxPreps.
"It’s not that [the team is] satisfied with our record," South coach Keith Gravitt said, "but I keep telling them that they should be proud of what they’ve accomplished."
Indeed, South has reached a level of competitiveness the program hasn’t experienced since making four straight state tournament appearances from 1999-2002. From the 2009-10 to 2011-12 seasons, the Lady War Eagles won 19 total games. They won 20 last season.
The swift turnaround has coincided with an influx of new talent over the past three seasons.
First, it was juniors Shelby Threlkeld and Mercer commit Ally Welch. Threlkeld is the team’s third-leading scorer with 7.6 points per game, while Welch leads the team in rebounding (8.0 RPG) and is second in scoring (7.8 PPG).
K.K. Storms and Maryland commit Sarah Myers were next. Both arrived last season with point guard skills and were comfortable playing up-tempo. Storms has averaged 2.8 assists a game at point guard, while Myers leads the team in scoring (18.4 PPG) and assists (3.3 APG).
This season, freshmen Caroline Diem and Mari Jonassen arrived to become impact players off the bench. Both average over 12 minutes a game and have combined for 9.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 steals a game.
Suddenly, the Lady War Eagles have depth.
"We have confidence in every single one of those girls to go out there," said Hannan, a senior. "In previous years, they’d be like a deer in the headlights. We don’t have that anymore. We know when a sub comes in, we know they’re going to take care of what they need to on the floor."
There have been other factors. Gravitt said community support has been vital. The move to Region 6-AAAAAA kept South away from powerhouse teams from Gwinnett County.
But ultimately, Gravitt said, it’s been about the talent.
"We’ve had some good ballplayers here before," Gravitt said. "But now there’s depth within the talent. Not just one person has to carry the load."
The talent enjoys each other. Storms and Myers have been playing together since they were 4 when their fathers started the Atlanta Cagers AAU team. Threlkeld and Welch have played with the Cagers since 2010.
"It helps a lot with our chemistry," Storms said. "We know where our teammates are going to be on the court being that we played with each other for so long. So it makes it a lot easier."
Together, they helped South become a state playoff team, and they want to get back.
"It’s extremely motivating," Storms said. "Since we got that taste, we want to get back and look to go much further."