Championship lifts the weight off Tattnall players, coach

jheeter@macon.comMarch 2, 2013 

Todd Whetsel has been close so many times.

He has coached in Final Fours at Central Fellowship and Tattnall Square. Six of them before Saturday.

But each time the Tattnall Square head coach traveled to those games at Georgia College -- both as a head coach and as an assistant -- Whetsel left the gym without a championship trophy.

Anna Dooley and Blair Smith know the feeling.

The Tattnall seniors have played in five Final Fours before Saturday: three in softball and two in basketball. They’ve never touched a state championship trophy.

Those droughts ended Saturday, however, when Tattnall Square beat Mount de Sales 58-46 to win the GISA Class AAA championship at Mercer’s Hawkins Arena. It’s the Trojans’ first girls basketball championship since 1998. The trophy and the net received from the GISA marked redemption for Whetsel, Dooley and Smith, and even for the Trojans’ best player Ivey Slaughter, who missed half of her junior year after suffering an ACL tear.

“You just keep coming back, keep knocking on the door,” Whetsel said. “It feels really good.”

While Whetsel’s chances have come through the years, Dooley and Smith have crammed a load of close calls into their high school athletics career.

Just on the basketball court, the duo suffered through a loss to Gatewood in the semifinals as freshmen and then again in the championship game against Arlington Christian a year later. Three other losses came in the softball finals, but they suffered an even bigger disappointment in softball as seniors. The Trojans had perhaps the best team in the GISA, but they were upset by Bulloch Academy and didn’t get to the Final Four.

“Of course you get frustrated,” Dooley said. “You just want to get your chance. We worked so hard and didn’t finish it off. Sooner or later, we felt like it would come. I feel so much relief.”

Dooley and Smith fought nerves throughout the day, knowing this was their final chance as high school athletes to finish a season with a championship. As the game began, those nerves trickled away, and they relied on what led them to be a tournament favorite.

“As a senior, getting a chance to win in your last game in your last major sport. ... This was the best feeling I’ve ever had,” said Smith, who repeated this was the best feeling of her life three more times in the next 40 seconds.

There was celebration for those two for sure, but the relief on their face was evident. The pressure was gone.

It wasn’t about pressure for Whetsel, who got to join many of his contemporaries like Ed Smith, Charley Chase, Philip McLeroy and Richard Reid as championship coaches. He might have more chances, particularly with a solid group of young players.

Slaughter’s redemption came in the form of getting to play on the GISA’s biggest stage.

She went to Tattnall as a very talented junior from Crawford County, a player who already had All-Middle Georgia honors on her résumé. She grew into a player who received a scholarship offer from Florida State even after suffering a devastating knee injury. She watched as her Tattnall team went from championship contender last year to one that limped to the finish. Those struggles probably molded her teammates into better basketball players. They learned how to play and survive without her on the court. Slaughter, meanwhile, had motivation burning inside her to work hard, get back on the court and lead her team to a championship.

“This means everything,” Slaughter said Thursday. “Just to get the chance to win a title. Means everything.”

The students at Tattnall showed how much she meant to them by hoisting her on their shoulders after the win.

For Dooley, Smith and Whetsel, the championship trophy was the weight lifted off theirs.

Contact Jonathan Heeter at 744-4400 or jheeter@macon.com.

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