The First Presbyterian Christian Academy Highlanders rode a perfect season all the way to their second consecutive state title in the GISA Class A division, beating Savannah rival Bethesda 77-63 Saturday afternoon in Milledgeville.
In addition to the win they remain the only undefeated basketball squad in the state.
The trophy didn’t come easy. According to Highlander head coach Darrell West, his squad trailed by 11 at the half but refused to give up. He said everyone did their part, but added credit to the shooting skills of AJ Ansley.
"He could have been blindfolded and still hit the shot," an elated West said. "If I could give him an award right now I would."
"I just played with my team and had fun out there," Ansley said.
It was the fourth time those squads met this season. On Jan. 24 Bethesda fell to the Highlanders 78-54.
Just 10 days later the Highlanders went to the Blazers’ home court and won by 1 point. The third meet was for the region trophy and the Highlanders won in overtime.
This time the Highlanders turned on the heat in the second half.
"When we went into the half down by 11," West recalls, "even as a coach when you get a little nervous about a situation you have to pull yourself together so the guys won’t see you’re nervous. We went into the locker room and told them we will have to play man-on-man so they (Bethesda) won’t go out there and hold the ball. Mike Brown came over to me afterwards and said, ‘Don’t worry, coach I got your back and Hakeem (Golden) said he would get every rebound. We went out there and slowly got back in the game again. The next thing you know we were up by 8."
"It felt good," senior Highlander Terrence "TA" Alston said. "Everybody had to play together and play to the best of their ability. It felt like everything that I wanted to accomplish I accomplished. They (Bethesda) are a great opponent. Win or lose they always fight hard and they always play to their abilities. We just happened to win."
"It felt way better than the first one," senior Joey Bell said. "We had to stay positive and know we had to come back into the game and play better defense, crash the boards and hopefully come back. We knew our offense would come back eventually."
While Bell and Alston are now considering college options, players like Ansley are contemplating a three-peat.
"I’m looking forward to a third state championship next year," Ansley said. "We have three starters coming back and we are going to be even stronger. I just plan to get out there and get me another championship."
"The coaches and players did a really great job going 26-0," said Ernie Walthour, director of the St. James Sports Center where the Highlander play home games. "I want to congratulate them on a great season."
Coach West agrees the pressure will be on them next season.
"We have to start this summer or maybe in the springtime and get them in the weight room," he said, "get some of these younger guys coming up through the ranks to go on tours and play in as many basketball games as you can over the summer."
The coach said Jamal Anderson and Mike Farrior are going to be two of the players he thinks will add depth to the varsity squad next season.
But West said he is dreading graduation.
"I really love those guys and we had some good times," he said about his seniors. "I hope they will come by the campus at times and watch our games. I’m going to miss, Joey (Bell), TA (Alston), Preyen (Patel), Ryan Smiley and Josh Rodgers. Those guys really made us who we were. There are going to be some tears shed during graduation but I wish them the very best for the rest of their live in whatever they do in their live."
"I was thinking about how much I’m going to miss my teammates and how I wish the season wasn’t over yet," he said.