19 Feb A formal. A final. And a family.
Two years ago, the Conway Christian Lady Eagles won its first Junior High District Championship in Mountain Pine by defeating cross-town rival St. Joseph 36-15. “That was a special bunch of players. That team was unselfish. They played hard, and they played together,” recalls head coach Jeremy Carson.
That year, Carson had a much different experience with his seventh grade bunch. “I don’t recall a more talented team, but they simply didn’t like each other. They were mean to each other, and some days they were just tough to be around. To get their attention, I threatened to cancel their season and even locked them out of the dressing room.”
Fast forward two years, and that bunch of seventh-graders had grown into a formidable and close-knit team. “Last year, I bumped up my two ninth-graders to varsity so this year’s freshmen had another season of just them playing. They got beat a lot, but competed very well. I knew that if they came together this year, we could do something special.”
Added to the mix of girls was a very spirited and supportive eighth grade class. “This team has been a joy to coach all year. They have competed well against each other, but the two grades really came together as a family.” That family would be tested this past week.
A formal. Conway Christian School does not have a prom, but it does have a Winter Formal and that is the signature event of the year. This year’s event was scheduled for the Saturday before the Junior District Tournament, but inclement weather forced the postponement of the event.
“Talking to the administration and looking at the weather, I feared that Winter Formal would be postponed. The freshmen were particularly looking forward to it being their first Winter Formal, and the weather would just not cooperate,” said Carson. “Eventually the only night that it could possibly be would be the Saturday of the Junior District Finals.”
Faced with that possibility, Carson and the school began preparing for the event, but in different ways. “I pulled the team together on Tuesday and let them know what was probably going to happen. They were disappointed to say the least, but I tried to get them to understand that they didn’t have another shot at a junior district title, but they would have future Winter Formals.”
However, the senior high students had other plans. When the district finals were set at 6 p.m. on Saturday night (the same time Winter Formal would be starting), junior Katie Jo Henley quietly rounded up students to come to the game, dressed up and all. “If there’s a championship game, I want to be there,” said senior Andrew Steely. Steely and Henley would gather around 30 students, including siblings of players and the entire senior high girls basketball team, to postpone their evening and watch the game.
“When I found out students were making plans to come, I was deeply moved. You don’t find that anywhere anymore where senior high students would sacrifice an evening for a junior girls basketball game,” said Carson. “Principal Billy Crow said that was what our school is about and he is spot on. What was most impressive was they kept it a secret. That’s hard to do in today’s era of social media.”
Getting there. All those plans would have been for naught if the Lady Eagles didn’t take care of business on Thursday night against cross-town rival St. Joseph. CCS won the regular season meeting 42-19, but Carson expected a much closer game on Thursday. “They are a great program. I knew they would adjust and be ready. They had been in the finals several years in a row, and I wanted my team to not take them or anyone lightly.”
CCS was only ahead 21-16 at halftime of the semifinal, but surged to a big lead in the third period and won 44-28. “We came out tight and nervous I thought. Halftime was more of a counseling session, just trying to get the girls to settle down. But they played really well in the second half.”
By the end of Thursday night, the finals were set. CCS would be playing host Quitman in the finals.
“Quitman has a really talented and well coached junior high team. I knew it was going to be a dogfight.”
A final. With both teams warming up, around 30 students from grades 9-12 made their entrance into Quitman’s gym. The reaction was priceless.
“I burst into tears when I saw my classmates at our game instead of at Winter Formal,” said freshman Carly Lawrence. Katie Dather was also in tears, with her senior brother Caleb and sophomore sister Lyndi in the contingent.
“Several girls were moved to tears in that moment. That was an emotional bench right before the game. But the girls gathered themselves and used the surprise as motivation,” said Carson.
The game was as good as advertised. CCS had beaten Quitman earlier in the season 44-38. The emotion spilled over into the game as CCS used its defense to smother Quitman to lead 18-9 at the half.
“The student section helped us set the tone. They were loud and rowdy and into the game. They didn’t just come to watch. They were fired up, and that helped our girls out big time.”
Quitman would make a run early in the second half and cut the lead to 2, but the Lady Eagles would respond with its own run and would eventually win 38-28.
A family. After being awarded the plaque for conference champions and district tournament champions, the Junior Lady Eagles rushed to the student section to celebrate. In that corner of the gym, 30 miles from Winter Formal and 30 minutes after Winter Formal was supposed to start, the CCS student body celebrated as a family.
“We have a family environment here at CCS.
It is unlike any other place I’ve ever known. For the senior high to have pulled this off in support of their junior high speaks volumes for the unity and love that the students have for one another. It is truly a night that no one will ever forget,” said Carson after the game. “It is such an honor and a blessing to coach at this school. I would have never thought this moment would happen two years ago. Give the girls credit for staying focused, coming together and playing with purpose. And give those older kids credit for sacrificing their night for a basketball game.”