In the movies winning changes everything. It's always about the underdogs, or a rag-tag team of misfits coming from behind at the last minute to win big. Only in real life could the story be even more inspiring; once in a lifetime the group is a winning team before the game is even played.
In the spring of 2013, Bulloch Academy girls' basketball coach Paul Webb had low expectations for the 2013-2014 season. He'd lost his number one player from the year before, senior GISA All-State forward Anna Newton, who led the 2012 team in its second consecutive regional championship. Webb didn't have a replacement in mind for Newton as he watched summer practices and assessed the player's strengths and weaknesses.
He had eleven girls to work with. Like most coaches, Webb moved the players around to determine who would play best in each position.
To get the girls into shape he enlisted B.A. math teacher and track coach Beth Burke. A former basketball player during Webb's rookie season 26 years ago, Burke had a special interest in the team. Both of her daughters, Haley and Ashley, had played for Webb. They were also very competitive players on the backyard court at home where their skills were honed against their mom, their dad, Bryan Burke, and brother, Taylor.
From her success with the track team, Webb knew Burke was a superb athletic trainer. He decided to enlist the players in what became known as Burke's Boot Camp, a tough series of daily afternoon strength and conditioning sessions that lasted throughout the summer. Admittedly more of a game strategist than a drill sergeant, Webb said, "I did not like to see the girls suffer."
According to Burke, "It was a tough love kind of thing. At our first camp the third week of June, we could see these girls had speed. All five starters were on the track team. In training they were pushed to excel. They were taught to push hard and fight through pain. They knew we had to do it and they didn't quit. Instead, they grew stronger."
With the team's speed already an advantage, Webb's and Burke's strategy over the summer became to "out-condition" the other teams.
There was something else the coaches noticed at the first camp. "It was something really special," Webb said. "It wasn't talent, it was more of a team spirit - a bond thing. The players were like sisters. There was none of the drama or fighting or jealousy that I had experienced with other teams in the past. These girls were very friendly and they really liked playing ball."
"We always try to do things with a team to help them bond that are not obvious," Webb said. "We go away to camp and spend the night. We have ‘secret sisters' where the girls draw names and give each other gifts of encouragement. With this group, the bond was already there."
Webb noticed something else extraordinary about the girls during game six or seven - each had a scripture written on the top of her right hand. "They agreed on the same scripture, what it meant, and how it applied. From a coaching standpoint, that's a great sign - it was team driven."
This display of spiritual connection was something Webb had not seen before in 26 years of coaching. The inspiration began to show in their games.
"In basketball, some players will let outside influences pressure them to do things outside their team role, but these girls didn't do that," said Burke. "They knew their role and did it. There was no conflict about performing."
The five starters all season were senior post Chelsea Oglesby, senior wing guard Danielle Atkinson, junior point guard Ashley Burke, junior post Pate Lomax, and junior guard Page Spence. (sidebar)
"The entire season our theme or strategy was to use what the girls did best. We had an exceptionally athletic team," Webb said. "We could out-run all of our competition on the court. We ‘tired-out' our opponents. We also put the ball in the point guard's hands and let her make the decisions."
"I was more nervous than Ashley," Burke said. "Her being point guard meant the opposing players would try to trap her. Plus I knew the whole team relied on her." Ashley didn't disappoint. She not only started every game, she was the only player who never stepped out of play.
"She controlled the court and she played every game, for 34 minutes straight at a time. She's a once-in-a-career player," said Webb. Other veteran players like Pate Lomax and Chelsea Oglesby paced the game with Burke, while seven of the team led at least one game in points throughout the season.
The team's special blend of brawn and spirit led the Lady Gators to a 27-1 single season win record leading into the Region 4 AAA tournament in Augusta.
On the Sunday preceding the regional tournament, Coach Webb received some sad news. His father, Raiford Charlie "R.C." Webb, had passed away peacefully at home at age 90. The funeral was set for Wednesday, one day before the regional tournament was to be played. "I was very touched when the whole team attended the family visitation on Tuesday evening," said Webb. "I was moved even more at the funeral Wednesday morning when I saw the team all sitting together in the chapel." During the service, the minister read from a favorite Bible verse R.C. carried in his wallet, Psalm 27:1: "The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" (KJV)
The next day the team was on the road to Augusta for the regionals. Webb was there for the girls, as they had been there for him and his family. The squad faced rival academies John Milledge and Pinewood Christian in challenges for the title. As the team warmed-up on the court Webb fist-bumped junior guard Kristin Kingery and noticed for the first time the scripture written on her hand. It was Psalm 27:1. On her other hand he could see the initials R. C.
Webb was overcome with emotion, hugging Kristen and the team's scribe, senior wing guard Danielle Atkinson. For Webb the gesture was significant. His usual tradition of calling his dad and mom after every game could be continued with news of the team's beautiful gesture.
In a statement released after the game, senior center and lead scorer, Chelsea Oglesby, commented, "We came in believing that we could beat Pinewood and get a three-peat, but we had to play together as a team, make smart decisions, and continue to have faith in ourselves and each other."
The regional victory brought the Lady Gators' winning record to 29-1, but for Webb the victory against Pinewood was even more memorable - it marked the 500th win of his career. As the buzzer sounded Webb was instantly surrounded as players, parents, fans, and supporters stormed the court with congratulations, balloons, and hugs.
From the regional tournament, the Lady Gators advanced to the state tournament in Macon where they faced strong opposition from other teams in Region AAA. "The Macon schools - Tattnall, Westfield, and Stratford - dominated AAA," Webb said. "We bypassed them along the way to the state tournament, but we had to play them all in the final round."
Three times the Lady Gators finished second at the state level: 1977, 1978, and 2010. This time according to B.A. Director of Institutional Development and sports writer Rahn Hutcheson, it was Bulloch Academy's superior guard play that made the difference. "Burke, Atkinson, senior Brooke Gilbert and junior Page Spence were quicker and could shoot better than their Stratford counterparts. Defense was also the key as the Lady Gator guards created turnovers, stole the ball, and wrestled the Stratford girls for jump balls."
For the first time in the history of Bulloch Academy, the Lady Gators brought home the State AAA Championship.
"It was a magical season," stated Webb. "A once-in-a-lifetime team."
With maybe a little something extra, too.
R.C.'s favorite scripture, Psalm 27:1, just happened to hold the same numbers as the Lady Gator's regular season record of 27wins - 1 loss, and R.C. stood for more than Raiford Charlie. It also stood for Region Champs.