It hit Susie Gardner on Friday, and she said it has been awhile since she has had that feeling.
Gardner’s four-player senior class -- made up of Precious Bridges, Alicia Williams, Briana Williams and Teanna Robinson -- will play its final regular-season game Saturday at Hawkins Arena. The Bears face off with Samford at 1 p.m., and their head coach took Friday to look back on her senior class.
“It’s more emotional for me than any other years because, with the exception of Briana, this is our first recruiting class,” said Gardner, who is coaching her fifth season with the program. “They came before they knew we could turn this around. We had two-win and six-win years, and they suffered through that, and they stuck it out.
“I feel great about where the program is now. They have had great life experiences, they got to go to Ghana, and they got a great education. They hopefully know the importance of hard work and being reliable and the lessons that we have tried to teach them. It’s been interesting (Friday) just walking around and thinking about this group, and it has been a while since I got reminiscent about a senior class. They’re a special group and not just as players; they’re special people.”
These four have been through quite a lot as they have gotten the program on solid ground.
Briana Williams was part of Gardner’s first team, which finished 2-27 in 2010-11, and the other three seniors joined the program the next year, going 6-23.
But the Bears finished 20-12 in 2012-13 (Briana Williams redshirted that year) and 17-14 in 2013-14. They are 16-13 this season, including 8-5 in their first season in the Southern Conference.
“It seems like it was just the beginning of the season, and now we’re here, the last home game, and it’s bittersweet,” Bridges said. “I feel like hard work is what got us where we are now.”
That work includes leading this year’s team, which didn’t have any juniors or sophomores on the roster. The four seniors were tasked to lead the eight freshmen through the highs and lows of this season.
“I don’t think people thought we could do what we’ve done because it was such a big gap between the two classes, but we have come together,” Bridges said. “We have meshed together enough to have a good season.”
And their head coach likes what she has seen from these seniors, what they were and what they have become.
“It’s like the guy who keeps hitting the rock, and on the 100th hit, the rock cracks. They have persevered through so much,” Gardner said. “They have grown so much as people. They were so different as freshmen. You know this time is coming, and it’s not a surprise because you have four years with them. So it’s our job as coaches to say, ‘Ok, the time is going to come. Are they going to be ready to cut the cord from me and go out into the world?’ And unquestionably those four guys are.”
Still, there is some work to do this season. Mercer and Samford are tied for third in the conference, so Saturday’s winner clinches the third seed for next week’s conference tournament.
Mercer defeated Samford in their first meeting, but the Bulldogs recently have defeated second-place East Tennessee State and played first-place and nationally ranked Chattanooga down to the wire.
“We are fighting for the same thing. We both want the same thing, that No. 3 seed,” Gardner said. “They are playing really good basketball right now. They’re a good basketball team, and it’s going to be a tough game.”