Kahlia Lawrence led Kendrick High's girls basketball team to its first state championship since 2008. But that's only half the story. She also maintained a 4.1 GPA while doing it.
So when the 18-year-old graduates on May 24th, she will have much to celebrate. In addition to winning the state championship with the Lady Cherokees, she was also nominated for a Ledger-Enquirer Page One Award, and last month she signed a letter of intent for a basketball scholarship at Mercer University. She plans to study biology and become a physical therapist one day.
"I ended up being No. 3 in my class this year," Lawrence said of her academic success. "I set for higher, but I think it's an amazing goal considering I play sports as well."
Lawrence excelled academically and athletically despite losing her stepfather four years ago and moving to Columbus from Texas her sophomore year. Those close to her say she is a high-achiever who strives to do her best both on and off the basketball court.
"She's disciplined. She's focused. She came in with the right mindset," said Sterling Hicks, coach of the Kendrick girls basketball team. "Her mom said from Day 1 that she won't play if she gets B's on her report card. So it's something instilled in her from home."
Lawrence said her mother, Vontrelle Williams, runs a tight ship. She served 10 years in the military and taught her the importance of discipline.
"I've always been pushed by my parents, and of course my mom is my biggest supporter and I think she just sort of instilled in me that self-motivation," Lawrence said. "I've always been an A and B student, but as I got older I only strived for A's."
Williams, 39, said she was raised by her step-grandmother and didn't have parents to encourage her when she was a child. She doesn't have a relationship with her mother, and her father is incarcerated. She wants a better life for Lawrence and her two younger siblings.
"I just think regardless of how good you are at any sport, or anything else in your life, I just feel academics comes first," she said. "I always tell my kids, 'I want you to be better than me.' I'm not saying anything is wrong with the way I am, but you're never too old to learn and improve your academics."
Lawrence was born in Fort Hood, Texas. Her family moved to Columbus when she was 2 years old and stayed until she was 8. She developed a love for basketball when she received a Little Tikes basketball set at the age of 4. Lawrence said her parents were athletes in high school. She also grew up watching sports on TV and is a big fan of college basketball.
After leaving Columbus, the family lived in several states including Oklahoma, Florida and Texas. Along the way Lawrence played organized basketball in elementary and middle school. As a freshman in El Paso, Texas, her mother insisted she be placed on the varsity team because she recognized her potential.
But it was also a time of grief. On Lawrence's' second day as a freshman, a neighbor checked her out of school and took her home, where her mother broke the news: Her stepfather had died unexpectedly at work. Lawrence said it was a big blow to the family.
But they stuck together and supported one another through the tragedy.
"Of course it had a huge impact on my life, but I kind of used that emotion to drive me to continue to do better," she said, "because I knew he wouldn't want me to just sit there and mope. He would want me to be the best that I could be."
Back in Columbus
Williams moved the family back to Columbus, where she and her husband had planned to settle after retiring from the military. She also chose the city because it's near her husband's hometown of Camilla, Ga., where he is buried. Lawrence had to adjust to the new environment.
"It was tough," her mother said. "Her sophomore year no one knew her. They didn't know where she came from. They didn't know her story. They didn't know that she loves basketball. It's not something that she just does -- she eats, drinks and sleeps basketball. It's like a love affair."
But she soon became an important member of the team, Williams said. "That summer they meshed. They got to know each other. They played basketball," she said. "That's why they had a great year their junior year."
On the basketball court, Lawrence unleashed her passion. In the three years she attended Kendrick, she scored a total of 2,086 points, averaging 26 points her senior year. In the state championship game, she scored 25 points, snapping Wesleyan's streak of six straight championships and helping clench the school's second state title.
"Each year we tried to go to the championship, and in previous years we were disappointed," she said. "But it didn't affect our work ethic. This year we were able to pull it off and I think it just proved to everyone else that we work as hard as anybody out there."
Hicks said Lawrence was a gracious player who never tried to hog the limelight.
"She could dominate if she really wanted to," he said. "But she's a team player and she doesn't want to take anything away from her teammates."
Hicks said he helped Lawrence keep up her grades by making her run laps if she got anything less than an A.
"Anytime she got a B on anything -- it could be a progress report -- I had to deal with it," he said. "She didn't get treated like the average student, or the average player, because she had higher expectations."
Williams said she's proud of all that her daughter accomplished at Kendrick.
"I know how sad she was last year that they didn't go to the championship," she said. "They made it to the final four and they lost there. I am just beyond words. For her to have achieved everything she achieved her senior year, I know it could only be God. He's given her those abilities and she's just amazing."
Williams also gives Coach Hicks credit for Lawrence's success both on and off the court.
"I know that my husband's death impacted my daughter very hard," she said. "She was not a big talker, but he saw something in her and he helped her develop her skills, just being able to talk to her teammates, and just being able to talk to me.
"He's more than a coach. He's really been a father figure to her," she added. "I am forever grateful for the example that he set for the girls, and the high standards that he has for them to always be ladies, to always be humble, to always be appreciative and to go out there and do their best. Those are life lessons."
Lawrence said it was a great senior year, and she hates leaving her team behind. But she realizes it's time to move on.
"I wish we would have had just a little more time, but I'm glad we got to end on a positive note," she said. "I wish the best in the future for the returning players and my coach 'cause I'm gonna miss them."