David May and Jenna Staiti had to do some serious recruiting in the fall semester.
May, West Forsyth's girls basketball coach, and Staiti, his 6-foot-5 senior, were trying to round up players to join the varsity team with the goal of competing for a state championship. For a team that had never even won their own region, some of the players from the past had become jaded.
Carsen Parker was one former player who had convinced herself she wanted to put her basketball career to rest and focus on soccer.
“For the entire year I thought I was done,” Parker said. “I kept saying to myself, 'I hate basketball. I'm not doing it.'”
May would bother her during her weight training block. Staiti would interject that she needed a point guard in the middle of math class. Even so, it was fellow junior Brooke Pirkle that changed Parker's mind.
Parker and Pirkle are close. They've played club soccer together and are both committed to play Division I soccer at the University of Arkansas. While Parker was dreading basketball, Pirkle had other ideas. Pirkle had not played hoops since her freshman season, but had a hunch.
“Brooke was like, ‘I think we should just do it,’” Parker said. “I was actually pretty surprised.”
“I just kept thinking, why not?” Pirkle said.
Parker gave in to Pirkle. They both went together and signed up for the team.
On Sunday, Parker walked into Walmart to a surprise: a blown up picture of herself from two days earlier, driving into the lane against Newton in the second round of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs. West won the game 70-33—it's largest victory of the year—and had its sixth victory in a row. The photo was on display near the entrance, adorned by a long message of encouragement.
Today, West (24-6) will face off with Cherokee (24-5) in the state quarterfinals at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton. If they win, they'll turn around on Saturday to take on either McEachern or Westlake in the semifinals. Get through that, and it's on to the state championship in Macon.
The Lady Wolverines are already living the dream. Staiti, a University of Maryland signee and McDonalds All-American nominee, said she thought about the team going to state, but wasn't often vocal about it. Her senior teammate, Jane Ortlip, wasn't looking that far ahead.
“We were used to losing in the first round of the playoffs every year,” Ortlip said. “So I didn't even think about that. I wanted to think about that if we ever got around to it. Now that we're here, it's pretty crazy.”
Instead, the team's general consensus was to make a run at the region championship. As the season went on, South Forsyth boasted an undefeated region record and defeated West twice with Staiti's future Maryland teammate Sarah Myers (also a McDonalds All-America nominee) leading the charge. Then North Forsyth got hot late in the year, leaving the region tournament up in the air. But things quickly changed: Myers severely sprained her ankle in the final regular season game. Both South and North lost in their region tournament openers.
That opened the door for West, and it never looked back. In fact, the Lady Wolverines think they've never played better.
“Honestly, at the beginning of the season coach May was throwing all of these points around and he was like, 'I think we can win region.' I just thought there was no way and that he was just trying to get our confidence up,” Parker said. “Now that I think back on it, I'm like woah, we really have come so far.”
Staiti has been a force. She's coming off two straight games of 35 points, 32 combined rebounds and has been knocking down seemingly every 3-pointer she takes. Her endless wingspan has been a nightmare for even the taller defenders in postseason play. But she thinks the group around her is just as much of a key as she is.
Her frontcourt mate, Kalie Schlegel, agrees.
“Everyone knows that Jenna is Jenna,” Schlegel said. “Jane can hit threes and Brooke and I will hit some corner shots, but I think Carsen and Hayla [Seitz] don't get enough recognition. Sure they don't score as much, but Carsen handles the ball so well and Hayla, even though she's the shortest on the court, will come out with like six rebounds a game.”
Parker seconded Schlegel's assessment with eyes wide-open. “I can't get a rebound to save my life and [Hayla’s] just flying in the paint snatching the ball from post players,” Parker said. “She even scored over Jenna in practice the other day.”
But, as West's players sat around in a circle and did their best to give scouting reports on each other, something else became much more clear: this is a team with unrivaled chemistry, and considering the task ahead they certainly seemed relaxed, cheerful and excited.
“I know a lot of times teams can have drama and stuff,” Schlegel said. “But the key is we all like each other. The environment is so positive and helps everyone out.”
The players have practiced better and more efficient as the season went on, which has made practices shorter and less stressful. Schlegel recalled a morning session after the team lost in a holiday tournament that put the team on edge—they had to run for nearly an hour. Since then, they've honed in on their focus, and in turn, made things easier on themselves.
“Last year we would dread basketball practice,” Staiti said. “But right now, we're just ready to go. We want to be here. We want to work. It's fun. I think it's the best we've played in four years. The best team we've had.”
“We used to be the team that nobody expects to win, but now we're the team that expects to win. It's a really great feeling,” Schlegel said.
“At this point in the season, you realize everything is worth it,” Parker said.