Some things in life never get boring.
A Facebook friend of mine put up a question over the weekend, asking her friends to describe their job in a sentence or less. My answer was “I go to ballgames and get paid to write about them.”
And so it was that I found myself driving home at about 1:45 a.m. Sunday morning, after a day where I witnessed both North Surry basketball teams finish as state 2A runners-up and the Mount Airy girls win the 1A state championship.
Somewhere around Burlington, I was trying to remember who the first girls’ basketball state champion I ever covered was. Then I realized the answer was easy. It was the first championship team I ever covered at all, the 1993-94 Hobgood Academy girls, who won the NCISAA 1A title with a perfect 24-0 record. They had a D1 recruit, Katherine Kitchin, who was Big South Conference Freshman of the Year a year later, playing in the middle. Yeah, it was kind of unfair…
But there was a twist to it. In the state championship game, Hobgood seemed to be playing five against eight, if you get my drift, and Kitchin was whistled for a phantom fifth foul late in the game with the score tied. Her teammates had to gut up and win the championship without her — and frankly, if you took Kitchin away, the other team was quite a bit better. Hobgood’s other girls proceeded to play the best four minutes they had played all season, and won.
When it was over, their coach said the same thing that Mount Airy head coach Angela Mayfield did on the night her team survived its own brush with defeat. On the night that the Lady Bears defeated Murphy 40-39 in the regional semifinals, she said twice how proud she was that they found a way to win.
Sometimes, a transcendent star can drag an otherwise ordinary team to the championship; North Surry’s girls faced that on Saturday. But other times, you see a team rise to the occasion, and players do things they’d never done before, and they wear the rings. In that way, my first championship team and my most recent are a lot alike.
During the Murphy game, the Lady Bears were down four in the fourth quarter, and Coach Mayfield pulled Asherah Smith out of the game with four fouls, replacing her with senior Megan Fleming. I didn’t like the move, and muttered under my breath “no, don’t do that.” But Fleming went out there and twice beat taller Murphy players to offensive rebounds, and with 1:08 left and the Lady Bears down by three, she slipped away from her defender and made a backdoor cut to the basket for a layup.
For all intents and purposes, that game was the real state championship. Jo Snow won it for her team in the final seconds, but she doesn’t get the chance if Megan Fleming doesn’t do what she did.
I told both Coach Mayfield and Megan the story later. That’s why Angela Mayfield coaches the Lady Bears and I just write about them.
In the last two games of the season, it was Sarah Lankford’s turn. She came off the bench in both games and got after it on the boards, even earning her coach’s confidence for the entire fourth quarter of the team’s West Regional final win over Avery County.
From player one through 12, this was a team, through and through. I don’t know how many times I saw the starters standing on the sideline in a mercy-rule massacre, cheering on Bailey Flippen, Shalin Revels, Tatyana Long and Amber Arnett as they finished up the game.
And then there was Lexi France. For three years, she played on outstanding teams that were blocked from the championship because of open-enrollment teams that recruit talent, but get to play in the 1A playoffs. Then, as a senior, the Lady Bears were so good it didn’t matter — but she got hurt in the fifth game. Just how good would this team have been with her toughness and diverse skillset available all season?
When Coach Mayfield told me that Lexi’s injury was serious and she wouldn’t play again, I thought it might cost them the state championship.
Nope. They still found a way.
There’s nothing more fun to write about than when a team stares down the odds, spits in their face, and finds a way to win anyway.
John Cate is the sports editor of the Mount Airy News. Reach him via Twitter at @johncate73.