SUMTER — When a storm comes, the Eagle is the only bird that actually leaves its nest and flies high above the storm. As they prepared to take the court in the AA SCISA State Championship game, Coach Jason Haltiwanger challenged his team to be Eagles in the face of adversity and to play like champions. The Lady Eagles team that had lost one game all season had a lot to rise above during the state championship game after center Jessie Stidham tweaked her ankle in the third quarter and then team captain Carson Justice got into second half foul trouble.
Suddenly, it looked like the momentum was turning in favor of the Dragons from Marlboro as they made halftime adjustments to the tight on-the-ball pressure RWA used to deny the Marlboro low post players and build a 24-16 halftime lead.
The Dragons head coach had his 6’1” post player move to a point forward role and bring the ball up the court. Her athleticism surprised Haltiwanger.
“Their post players could handle the ball better than I thought,” he said.
That ball handling and a bevy of missed layups to start the third quarter gave the Marlboro Dragons hope they could make a run.
But then the Eagles called a timeout and a season of promise went… to the dogs. Dog soldiers, that is.
As the Lady Eagles waited for tip off, Coach Haltiwanger led the team in devotions. The pregame devotions were about the Cheyenne Native Americans and their culture of “dog soldiers.” During the heat of battle, the Cheyenne would send their best warrior, the dog solider, into the fight. That warrior would place a stake down in the ground and chain himself to it, a sign that he was willing to sacrifice himself and his body for victory. Haltiwanger then drew the parallel of Christ being “the ultimate dog soldier” whose stake took the form of a cross.
“That stake and battle were won so that we could live. During that timeout, I challenged our girls to go out and be dog soldiers in the game today and be willing to sacrifice their bodies for victory as they pushed through fatigue or adversity. If they feel tired, so what? Christ carried that cross two miles, so I challenged them to tap into that,” Haltiwanger said.
He also reminded them to be Eagles and rise above the adversity they were facing in the second half.
“We missed four layups coming out in the second half and got a bit rattled,” Haltiwanger said. “Then 11 hit a big three point shot, which I take the blame for. I substituted in a player and she was not aware she needed to cover the shooter. That was the only open outside look the shooter got the entire game. We took a timeout and talked it over. I reminded them to be eagles and to rise above.”
Did they ever.
Stidham came back in the game and attacked one of Marlboro’s top players, drawing a foul and causing the girl to foul out. Justice got the momentum to swing in the Lady Eagles’ favor by hitting a big three point shot from the top of the key with a hand in her face.
That got the momentum in the Eagles’ favor but they still faced a tough time with a quality opponent in Marlboro.
With 3:07 left in the fourth period, Justice picked up her fourth foul as the Eagles nursed a seven point lead. Justice refocused herself.
“I knew I had to go out and play smart basketball. My team needed me as a leader to stay out on the floor. I knew that without me being out there contributing we would not be able to get (the win).”
The Eagles pulled out the 46-31 victory.
The Lady Eagles changed to man to man defense in the second half inside the three point line to help with their penetration.
“Our girls did a good job of rotating out on the Marlboro shooters. Then we were able to sit back and hold the ball to make them have to foul us,” Haltiwanger said.
The Eagles made their free throws and held onto the lead.
They had that press going tonight and she was playing like a kid above her years. That steady play allowed Haltiwanger to move the 5’10” Justice to the two guard spot at times to free her up more as a scoring threat.
“Overall, if you watch this team, you can see that we play for a higher purpose. The youth on this team and how poised they are…. I mean in the last two games an eighth grader (Alyssa Atkerson) stepped up and carried us. That is the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team (which lost in the state finals).
“We are a complete team with more bodies to roll in. By contrast, Marlboro had two of their best girls foul out and did not have the depth (to keep competing). A team beats a group of individuals any day. Of course, God gets the glory. He gave us the ability, the wisdom to make a game plan and blessed these players with talent and desire.”
Justice and Atkerson made the All-Tournament Team. Justice led the team with 25 points. Atkerson had eight points. Jaycie Johnson and Stidham scored six points each for the Lady Eagles.
“As for an encore, I hope the girls all come back and play next year. If they do, it should be a lot of fun. We can still work the fine tune things. They have a lot of basketball knowledge and they work together so well,” he said. For Coach Haltiwanger, the fourth time at the state finals (two with Richard Winn and two trips with Newberry Academy) was the charm.