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HILLSVILLE –– There is probably a good number of 8th-grade girls’ basketball coaches walking around at various schools out there today with less hair than they possessed when they started the job, either due pulling it out themselves or by having it leave of its own volition.
Carroll County’s 8th-grade girls certainly caused their coach to lose his hair, albeit all at once, and on a completely voluntary basis.
Following through on a promise, Greg Hawkins emerged from the locker room with a shaved head following the Cavaliers’ win over Pulaski Middle on Jan. 14, moments after his girls completed a perfect 19-0 season with the 49-14 win over the Orioles.
The unblemished record was the second straight for the Carroll 8th-grade team, coming on the heels of the identical 19-0 mark put up by the 2011-12 squad.
“We’ve got some really good girls coming through the program right now,” said Hawkins.
The back-to-back 19-0 records were constructed by two entirely different groups of players. The bulk of last year’s team has made major contributions toward the success of the junior varsity team, which was unbeaten as of Tuesday, while three members of the team are completing their first season on the varsity. This year’s middle school team extended what has grown into a 40-game winning streak.
There is no secret to the girls’ success – there’s no 13-year-old, 7-foot freak of nature lurking in the CCIS halls, no Michael Jordan in pigtails set to take the high school scene by storm. These girls simply play a lot of basketball. A whole lot of basketball.
“They’ve been playing for years,” said Hawkins. “The AAU program helps because the kids are playing 50 or 60 games a year, for three or four years in some cases, before they ever come to 8th grade.”
Pit a group of girls with 200 games under its belt against a group with a quarter of that experience, and it shows. This year, it was evident in the form of a 40-22 average margin of victory.
The Cavaliers’ tipoff-to-buzzer pressing style of play always paid dividends, usually from the onset but often in the late stages against the stronger competition. In 19 games this year, the Cavaliers allowed 10 or more points in a quarter just six times, but held a foe scoreless for a quarter on four occasions. Nine times an opponent went without a field goal for a quarter. The team allowed more than 30 points just once, while holding a team to 20 or fewer six times.
The team’s two closest games were back-to-back six-point wins over Floyd County, games that were separated by the Christmas holiday. Carroll trailed in the first game by four points early in the fourth quarter but Mariah Carter hit 10 free throws in the fourth, scoring 25 points to help pull out a 43-37 win.
The team’s leading scorer, Carter averaged 11.8 points per game, scoring 16 a night over the final seven games.
“She can dribble faster than a lot of girls can run without the ball,” Hawkins said. The anticipator on the Cavaliers’ diamond press, Carter got a big chunk of her points picking off passes and either driving for a layup or picking up a foul.
Six other players averaged between three and six points per game, five of whom hit for double figures in at least one game each.
Standing 5-foot-10 with a 6-foot wingspan, Sydney Hawks (5.4 ppg) was the point of Carroll’s press and the catalyst to many of the team’s takeaways.
Katie McKenzie, a 7th-grader, started at point and averaged six points per game, and guard Afton Beamer (4.0 ppg) was like a coach on the floor, said Hawkins.
“A couple of times I was about to call an offense and she would call it on the floor before I could,” he said.
Chloe Easter is from the lineage of some of the greatest players in Carroll school history.
“She’s an Easter,” Hawkins said. “I don’t know what it is about the Easters, but she plays like all the kids in the previous generation.”
Alexis Meredith was one of the team’s better shooters, from the outside and from the foul line.
The team’s post players are both relative newcomers. Megan Garland moved to the area before the 2011-12 school year. Hawkins calls her The Beast and said that nobody rebounds or gets after a loose ball with more gusto.
Jade Holt got Hawkins’ attention last year during summer camp, enough so that he called the county’s AAU director.
“You’ve got to come see this girl, and get her in some games,” Hawkins remembers telling the AAU guy.
Megan Phillips, Katie Swain and Gracie Puckett all contributed important minutes throughout the year. Every player scored, in at least two games each.
Hawkins sees the back-to-back 19-0 seasons as more than a fluke occurrence, a mere spike in the talent-ometer.
“We’ve got a couple more good groups coming up,” he said. “There are seven or eight girls in the sixth grade who can play, and several in the fifth grade who can play. I think we’re going to have four or five really good years.”
The varsity program has always scheduled as strong a nondistrict slate of games as it could, but has gotten most those games out of the way usually by December and then dominated the Southwest District most years – winning more than 100 straight against SWD competition in one stretch – whereas region competition rolls around in late February or March. The timing of these groups of undefeated teams couldn’t bet better for the high school program, which will move to the powerful River Ridge District next year. A string of talented classes playing a grueling schedule month-in and month-out will only help develop their skills.
So back to Hawkins’ back to haircut. In between the Floyd games, Hawkins challenged his girls to finish with a flourish. If they won their last four games and matched the perfect mark of their predecessors, he would have his head shaved in the locker room after the last game.
“I was just looking for a little extra motivation, I guess,” said Hawkins, “just trying to get them to play our last four games at the highest level that we could. I don’t know if it had an impact or not, but they really played well those last four games.
Nobody is predicting a repeat of the repeat this year’s team accomplished, but there’s no doubt Carroll County girls’ basketball is going to be solid for a few years to come.
“[Varsity] coach [Marc] Motley watches the younger girls practice, and his face just lights up,” Hawkins said.
Sounds like the 8th-grade coach may want to think about having a good barber on standby in the future.