When the GHSA state girls basketball tournament games begin Tuesday, three Middle Georgia schools will take the court with wildly divergent paths to the quarterfinals. But while all three playoff runs are very impressive, none of three could have been predicted a few years ago.
If you go back in time three years and guessed which of three -- Howard, Mary Persons or Southwest -- girls teams could make a deep playoff run the fastest, Southwest seems like the safest guess.
The Patriots have a pedigree of playing in big games, back to the days of back-to-back state runner-up finishes in 1994 and 1995 with dominant post player Latavia Coleman. They followed that with consecutive quarterfinal appearances in 2006 and 2007.
Head coach Willie Goolsby led each of those teams to playoff success, so it would be reasonable to assume he could pilot the Patriots back to success in the playoffs. However, you have to consider how far the Patriots slid for two years following the 2007-08 season. They won 13 total games over the next two years and missed the playoffs both times. They had 77 wins in the three-year span beginning with the 2005-06 season. They started to rebound with a 16-11 season in 2010-11, and won 18 games last year while advancing to the second round of the playoffs. The Patriots lost to eventual Final Four participant Brooks County by four points in the second round.
"This group has gotten better each year," Goolsby said. "They've bought in to the program, and they've got back here with hard work. ...I hoped I had one more run in me, so I'm really proud we're back."
The Patriots have made an even bigger leap this year, winning 22 games and a region championship. They'll face a very solid Washington County team Tuesday in the quarterfinals. Despite playing without two-time Telegraph Player of the Year Allisha Gray, the Lady Hawks are a win away from a third straight Final Four appearance.
Kurt Greene also has experience in Final Fours. He took Jones County to the state semifinals in 2005 and 2006 thanks to the stellar play of two-time Telegraph Player of the Year Chimere Jordan. Jordan, in an eerie coincidence with fellow two-time POY Gray, also missed most of her senior year with an ACL tear, or Greene may have three consecutive Final Four appearances.
Greene left Jones County for a reclamation job at Mary Persons, which hadn't advanced past the second round since the 1960s.
The Bulldogs won nine games the year before he arrived, and they went .500 in his first year. In year two, the Bulldogs won the region championship before losing in the opening round of the state playoffs. This year, his third in Forsyth, the Bulldogs have won 25 games and yet another region championship and have advanced to the quarterfinals for the first term in the modern era of Georgia high school basketball.
"It's all about the players," Greene said. "Coaching doesn't matter if you don't have players who will work hard and have some talent. These girls deserve credit for working hard to get to this point."
Mary Persons hosts Woodland-Stockbridge at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Unlike Greene or Goolsby -- both experienced coaches at established programs -- Coleman came to Howard with no head-coaching experience in the first year the school opened.
I watched some of those early Howard teams the first season. Those games weren't a fun watch.
Coleman, however, didn't get too frustrated -- she hates losing so there were some rough evenings -- and continued to build. The Huskies made their biggest move last season, when they lost to Crisp County in their first playoff appearance. They won even more this season and took Mary Persons to overtime in the region title game. The Huskies won their first playoff game and added a second playoff win on the road against Monroe on Friday. The Huskies travel to Jonesboro on Tuesday night in the quarterfinals.
"That first group of girls stayed with it and built this program into a playoff team," Coleman said. "This group of seniors has taken us to the next step."
Coleman's peers have been impressed with her growth, including her former high school coach Goolsby.
"I couldn't be more proud of what Tay has accomplished this year," Goolsby said. "Her kids have bought in on what she is teaching them, and she has earned this success."