Todd Whetsel knew the end had come, but the Tattnall Square girls basketball head coach felt the reality hit not too long after his team beat Mount de Sales to win the GISA Class AAA championship last year.
Ivey Slaughter, one of the greatest girls basketball players in GISA, was gone. After averaging about 21 points and 12 rebounds and leading Tattnall to its first title since 1998, Slaughter left for Florida State. She scored 26 points in the championship game victory and has started every game for the Seminoles, averaging 9.6 points and 8.9 rebounds.
“When I totaled the stats at the end of the year and saw how many points and how many rebounds she had for us and what we would be missing, that’s when it really hit,” Whetsel said. “When you do those season-ending totals and you think, ‘Wow, that’s a lot to replace.’ Probably about two weeks after the (championship game).”
But after some early struggles against good teams, Tattnall (12-3) has repositioned itself as one of the favorites in Class AAA. The Trojans are seeking to become the fourth program to win back-to-back titles since 2004. Stratford, FPD and Arlington Christian have accomplished the feat during the past 10 years.
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“We thought it would take a lot of hard work to get used to not having her here,” Jordan Allen said. “There’s not going to be another Ivey Slaughter. Maybe never.”
Whetsel knew what he had returning.
Despite losing starters Slaughter, Blair Smith and Anna Dooley to graduation, the spine of his team returned. He had five players (Liz Wainwright, Jordan Allen, Haley Gordon, Kendall Hardy and Ashlyn Whetsel) from last year’s regular rotation returning with what he hoped a heightened level of confidence after the championship. All were either sophomores or freshmen in 2012-13, so Whetsel had a young core that he would have for two years. Another important piece, junior Kendra Green, transferred from Northeast.
Green is averaging a double-double this season, and Allen is also averaging more than 10 points.
“My mom stressed that a lot, I can’t try to be (Slaughter),” Green said. “I just have to be the player I can be. Just be me.”
Allen said the team accepted Green “immediately” and found on-court chemistry came pretty easy.
“It’s like she’s been here for years,” Allen said.
But the Trojans still struggled some early in the season.
They lost their opener to Bulloch Academy, a team considered to be among the top contenders for the state title. After wins over Gatewood, John Milledge and Deerfield-Windsor, Tattnall lost to Trinity Christian and Crisp Academy. Both Trinity and Crisp have talented post players who are major college prospects. Whetsel said the Trojans didn’t struggle as much defending those talented posts -- he also said Bulloch has the best pair of inside players -- but rather they struggled offensively in those defeats. They only allowed an average of 41 points in those losses, but they also managed just 35 per game and scored 24 at home in the loss to Trinity Christian.
Tattnall got back on track at its Christmas tournament, avenging the losses to Trinity and Bulloch Academy to win the tournament. A 50-40 win over Bulloch -- still the Gators’ only loss this season -- came in the championship game and is a piece of Tattnall’s current nine-game winning streak.
“I think we’re learning and growing together,” Green said. “I think we get more comfortable every game, and we’re still improving.”
Tattnall won its first four games after the Christmas tournament by an average of 31 points. The Trojans added a solid road win over Deerfield on Tuesday.
They get their chance to avenge that third loss when they host Crisp Academy and Mercer signee Madi Mitchell on Friday. The Trojans then close the season with Westfield and Stratford in four of their final five regular-season games.
“We’re just trying to improve and be playing great at (the end of the year),” Whetsel said. “Even though we’ve won nine in a row, we still feel like we have work to do and just want to play well at the right time, which is in about four weeks.”