The last two seasons, it has been a very common phrase for the people of Cherokee County, and this season is no different as it bares repeating: the Spring Garden Lady Panthers basketball team are the AHSAA 1A Northeast Regional Champions and are going to Birmingham. Pete Mathews Coliseum at Jacksonville State University played fantastically as hosts of the Northeast Regional tournament as it has for the past several years, and for the Spring Garden girls it is almost as if this court belonging to a Division I NCAA team has been home sweet home for this small community high school over these last 3 seasons. Spring Garden has saw great success in the previous 2 seasons, both of which included trips to Birmingham and State Championship games. 2015 was a rough one for Spring Garden, falling to Keith 38-27 and only managing to bring home a the red Runner-Up trophy (which in itself isn’t too shabby). But Spring Garden stormed back, winning the title last season and having a momentous follow up this year. As pointed out by my good friend at the Cherokee County Herald, Shannon Fagan, ever since Spring Garden lost to Keith in that 2015 State Championship game, these Lady Panthers have not lost to a single 1A team and brought home a 1A Championship last season.
Let me separate that and put it in perspective: Spring Garden has not lost a single game to a 1A school since 2015, that has been up to this point 29 straight victories over their 1A foes. That is insane to think about, but for Coach Ricky Austin and his girls, it’s just plain business.
Now, back to our topic at hand, Spring Garden is once again Northeast Regional Champions and heading to the BJCC for the 3rd season in a row. But how did they get through their region opponents? Well, here’s how:
SPRING GARDEN vs CEDAR BLUFF
So after Spring Garden pounced their way through Sub-Region action, they found themselves face to face with a familiar county foe in Cedar Bluff to welcome them back to Jacksonville. Cedar Bluff was riding off some big momentum, having knocked off a Skyline team in the 1A Area 14 Championship to win their first Area Championship in school history during the process of making it to Jacksonville, so we were ready for a tough match-up that was going to bring a win to Cherokee County no matter who walked away from this one.
Spring Garden made sure we were reminded why they were the defending 1A State Champions.
The Lady Panthers outscored the Lady Tigers by double digits in 3 of the 4 periods played on Feb. 17th (the one exception being a 7-6 2nd period in favor of Spring Garden), and that led to an impressive 61-25 victory for Spring Garden over Cedar Bluff. A tough night from 3 point range (0-18) certainly played a factor for Bluff as none of their girls could hit from distance, while Spring Garden had a moderate 39% from outside the arc (7-18) and the biggest chunk of that coming from a 6-10 3 point performance from the sharp shooter Savannah Dempsey. Cedar Bluff was led through their performance by Alexis Smith who finished with 11 points and 5 rebounds. For Spring Garden, they had a pair finish with double digits in scoring. Tiyonna Rogers posted an 18 point, 9 rebound performance with the rebounds being a co-team-high with AJ Broome (6 points), while Savannah Dempsey led the team with 22 points. On assists, all 3 for the Lady Tigers came from Kyla O’Neal who also posted 2 points on the evening, and for Spring Garden Kerstin Bryant set up her teammates 9 times while also putting together 4 points.
The win moved Spring Garden to 23-7 on the season, while Cedar Bluff ended a historic run of a year with a 13-19 record.
SPRING GARDEN VS SKYLINE
Spring Garden didn’t have long to wait that Friday evening after downing Cedar Bluff, as they found out their opponent soon after once Skyline defeated Coosa Christian 69-44. The 27-4 Lady Vikings were certainly on a vengeful path, having felt stung following their shock loss to Cedar Bluff in the Area Championship game, and they were ready to power through to Birmingham if it’s the last thing they could do. Problem was, at some point, their path was way too likely to run into Spring Garden. A ranked match-up was set up well for the Northeast Regional 1A Championship, with Spring Garden entering ranked 3rd in the ASWA polls and Skyline bolstering their 7th ranking, but the rankings didn’t stop either team from putting on a great performance Wednesday afternoon.
These two teams really battled throughout the game, I got to see that first hand, but for a 46-25 score it was still a game Spring Garden had in hand very well as they went on to win the Northeast Regional title. In another 3-point performance favoring the Lady Panthers, with Garden going 5-18 from range including a pair from Macy Reedy and Savannah Dempsey, and Skyline only managing 1 made 3 pointer from Gracie Stuckey off of 17 attempts by the team. On the leading side for both teams, we will start with Skyline who got a good performance from Baleigh Martin who finished with a team-high 6 points, and Caity Ledwell who put grabbed a team-high 5 rebounds along with 3 points. Madison Smith (4 points) and Gracie Stuckey (3 points) also grabbed an assist a piece to total the teams 2 assists on the evening. And then for Spring Garden, Tiyonna Rogers posted the only double digit scoring on the game with her team-high 11 points, while Kerstin Bryant did the most on the boards with 8 rebounds along with 5 points, and AJ Broome put together a team leading 5 assists to go along with 7 points in what was a good overall game for Spring Garden.
Skyline’s loss ended their season at 27-4 to go along with a Region Runner-Up performance, while Spring Garden clasped their 3rd straight Region Championship and improved to 24-7 on the year.
The Lady Panthers will get a few days to relax, but expect Coach Austin to get his girls working as they prepare for another trip to the BJCC. Spring Garden is seeking their 6th State Championship in school history, and this one will mean a lot if they can accomplish it as they go into the Finals as the defending champions, and they want nothing short of another win while in Birmingham to ensure that they can go into the Championship game riding high off that momentum.
Spring Garden know they will have a target on their backs entering Monday at Noon when they take on J.F. Shields. The 4th ranked, 19-3 Lady Panthers from Beatrice enter in with a stacked roster of young players, and they are looking to find their way to win their first state championship since 2010. Coach Linda Hollinger will be bringing a fight with her team, that’s for sure, and Spring Garden certainly has loved these fights with 1A teams. After all, as said before and on many of the fan shirts, it’s “Garden vs All Y’all.”
If Ricky Austin’s gals survive Monday, they get a few days to prepare for Thursday, March 2nd at 4 PM. and waiting for them on the other side of the bracket will either be a 9th-ranked 20-4 Central Region Champion Westminster-Oak Mountain team who represent the city of Birmingham, or R.A Hubbard out of Courtland, Alabama who won the Northwest Regional and hold a 19-8 record despite being unranked.
A win on Monday means 30 straight wins over 1A foes, and a 3rd straight trip to the State Championship game for Spring Garden. A win Thursday, along with 31 straight, means a second straight blue trophy coming home to Spring Garden High School and a fan base that couldn’t be any prouder for these girls that represent their community so well. Make sure to find your way out to Birmingham, if you can (and if you do, leave early! There is a lot of construction going on near the BJCC right now and it is going to slow down traffic.), but if you happen to not be able to attend well worry not as I’ll be there in Birmingham covering the event and one way or another the games will be broadcast on WEIS so stay tuned on our website for more info about that. Until then, see you in Birmingham, and let’s all as a Cherokee County community cheer on Spring Garden to victory.