Former Kendrick girls basketball player Melia Jones’ YouTube history shows one video viewed much more than any other.
Jones had repeatedly gone to the site and found the 2014 Class 2A state title game featuring Jones’ Lady Cherokees against Wesleyan. Kendrick entered the game with a perfect 30-0 record and the challenge of dethroning the six-time defending champion Lady Wolves. They exited with a 69-58 victory and Kendrick’s second state championship in program history.
How many times has she sat through the over-two-hour video? Well, Jones admits, it’s hard to keep track at this point.
“From then to now, probably 100 times,” Jones said. “That same year we won it, I probably watched it every day until I got tired of it. Sometimes, I don’t even remember (parts of) it. Was I just on the bench? Did I even touch the floor? I just keep watching myself and going, ‘Oh, I remember that.’”
Jones’ go-to video featured what will stand as Columbus’ latest girls basketball championship until Friday night, when either Carver or Columbus takes over that distinction. Jones and several other members of the 2013-2014 team took time to look back at their special title run and what it meant not only to the players involved, but for the players who soon followed in their footsteps.
“We were on a mission,” Kendrick head coach Sterling Hicks said. “It was just something we felt destined to do.”
Women on a mission
The Wesleyan win was the one that delivered the championship, but for Hicks and the other players on that time, it was the matchup two games before it that proved the Lady Cherokees worthy of the title.
Kendrick took on Greater Atlanta Christian in the quarterfinals round of the tournament, and it was a matchup many anticipated would decide who won it all. The Lady Cherokees had faced GAC the previous season in the second round and barely survived, advancing with a 61-59 victory.
The game proved to be another close one, but the situation looked grim early in the fourth quarter when Kendrick’s star player Kahlia Lawrence fouled out. As Lawrence sat solemnly on the bench, the team stepped up in her absence, willing the team to a 65-62 victory.
From there, it began to sink in that this undefeated team had no intentions of letting its streak stop.
“That was the game everyone expected us to lose,” said Jones, who now plays at Andrew College. “When Kahlia fouled out, they thought it was just over for us. Coach always talked about he had the best team, and that night it proved it with or without her.”
Of course, there was still more basketball to play to determine the champion. The Lady Cherokees took care of Putnam County in the semifinals to advance to the title game against the revered Lady Wolves.
For Hicks, putting everyone on the same page was as easy as hitting the power button on the TV remote.
“That wasn’t really hard to get them focused,” Hicks said. “I just showed them the film from the year before when we made it to the Final Four. We couldn’t go into it thinking ahead. There wasn’t much to say. The film said it all.”
Lawrence and teammate Taylor Farley admit to playing nervous in the early goings of the championship game, saying it took some time to settle in on the big stage. After Lawrence shook herself out of what Hicks deemed a “fog”, she was nearly as unstoppable as she had been her entire run as a Lady Cherokee, scoring 25 points in the win.
Lawrence, who finished her high school career with a state title, said coming up short before made the big moment even more special.
“You tasted defeat and were so close last time,” said Lawrence, who has carried her success to a stellar career at Mercer. “Doing it the year after being put out of the playoffs, it just made it so much better.”
Shortly after the victory came the celebrations and recognitions that felt like a blur for many on the team. Columbus held a parade in the team’s honor. The Lady Cherokees had a chance to meet with the city’s mayor. Then came a bus ride to Atlanta to visit the state capitol and be recognized for their endeavors.
“It was like something you would see on TV or something you would dream of,” said Farley, who now plays for Georgia Highlands. “We were in it, and people were actually honoring us. It was so surreal.”
The years following Kendrick’s title have seen significant growth in girls basketball across the city. Those improvements have culminated in this season in Class 4A, where the Lady Blue Devils and Lady Tigers are the last two standing across the entire state.
Hicks said Kendrick’s achievements over the years was a catalyst for local teams to step up their games. As high school players and coaches sharpened their skills and began looking at the bigger picture, it created a trickle-down effect where more people in the area paid attention to the sport.
Some of those who closely watched Kendrick’s run may very well suit up on Friday, which is something Lawrence said is incredibly humbling.
“It’s amazing to think that maybe they saw us play in the state championship and were inspired by some of the things we accomplish,” Lawrence said. “Now they’re able to go out there and experienced what we experienced and being able to say they made it.”
Farley said the aftermath of Friday’s game will be crazy in Columbus, as the celebrations and honors will likely be along the same lines of what she experienced. Not everyone can leave high school and say they won a state championship, making it a distinction that the victors can carry with them after they leave high school.
No one cherishes the value of that moment more than Jones, who said she watched the title game again last week. She has shown the video to some of her teammates at Andrew College, proving to them she was part of history in Columbus.
“I’ve got bragging rights,” Jones said. “I just hope I can have another moment like that. If I don’t, I know I’ll always have something to look at.”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports