It was an emotional night at Johnson County High School, as the Lady Longhorns honored their three senior players. Like so many games before, the final score came down to a disappointing loss against the visiting Lady Patriots from Sullivan East, but the end results aside, all eyes were on the individual players.
Both Sarah Swift and Kristin Roark have been with the Lady Longhorns since their freshman years. In the time since then they have seen many changes to the program and have had both dramatic lows and highs, including the addition of fellow senior Porschia Suggs in her junior year. Through it all, a strong sense of family has come to highlight their careers, developing bonds of friendship that will surely last a lifetime.
Yet according to each of the girls, this strong bond would never have existed had it not been for the efforts of Coach Todd Whittemore who stepped in three years ago to try and take the ailing program and make it into something that not only fans but the players themselves could be proud of.
When Coach Whitt came here, thats when we started becoming a family, Sarah Swift commented after the game. He really made us into what we are today. He was like no other coach Ive ever had. Whatever we did, even if it was at practice or at a game, we all had something to do, and he was right there with us. He wanted to get the whole team into it. Thats why we are so close, because we do so much more than just play basketball together. Honestly I dont think we would be good as we are if we didnt think of each other as sisters. There is no way we would be the team we were if we didnt all get along. I think thats the main thing about basketball, if you dont have chemistry you dont have a chance. Ill always be coming back and helping out any way I can.
Echoing her teammates sentiments, Kristin Roark explained, Coach Whitt is just a great guy, a great coach. Everyday in practice, every time we all hung out, there were new memories made and theres no best one, they were all equally great. It feels weird knowing that I wont ever be able to play again as a team. I have a feeling that were all going to stick together and were always going to come back and stay as close as we are now.
While Suggs readily admits that she hasnt had as much experience on the court as her senior counterparts, she spoke just as fondly of the bond that has rapidly formed. Even when health issues prevented her from actually playing this season, Suggs continued to support her teammates, filling an essential role by keeping her friends going even when the road got rough. I started my junior year, Suggs said. I wasnt a player this year but I love to spirit them on, cheer them on. Id rather be on the bench cheering on my team than anything else. Were all family and were going to stay close. Even after high school, after college well still have each other.
While Coach Whittemore had nothing but good to say about all three girls, even he admitted that Porschia has readily taken a position on the team that will be irreplaceable. Sarah and Kristin have been here since day one, Whittemore said. Weve grown together and I love them both to death. Theyre like daughters I dont have and now theyre ingrained in this family. They get what Im trying to build here. Sarahs taking the family to Emory and Henry and Ill be there trying to support her. Im not sure exactly what Kristin and Porschia are planning, but Ill say this about Porschia. She hasnt been with me as long as Kristin and Sarah but she has grown close to me and Robin and Jackson. She has grown very close in a short amount of time. She works with us down at the restaurant so Porscia in some ways has caught up even though she has only been here half the time. She is like the cheerleader on the team. She does things in practice and on game days and road trips that are just as important as someone making a free throw in the game. Everybody has to have a different role. Everybody cant be the captain, everybody cant start, but that doesnt mean that everybody isnt important.
Becoming a little sentimental about his time in Johnson County, Whittemore related that coaching his first group of girls has actually taught him a lot more about himself than he ever expected. My first summer three and a half years ago, I got hired in about May. We didnt have time to do much early on, but we had six girls. We went down to UT and Kristin and Sarah were two of those six along with Brionna, Brandy, and Brooke. Me, Sarah and Kristin have grown together. I have gotten to understand them, and they have gotten to understand me since I came here. Theyve seen probably the biggest change out of me, more than anybody.
Its a different animal, the Coach continued. After being the head boys coach for 17 years you have to change gears to start coaching girls, but that can be taken in a very good way. These girls are less selfish, they try to please more, they try to do what is asked of them. Times have changed. Everyone is a hero around their own dinner table, but these girls dont take that onto the court near as much as I have had to deal with guys. Ive had two opportunities to take jobs coaching boys but I turned them down because I want to be here. I love working with this team.
Even playing against one of the toughest teams in the conference, the Lady Longhorns proved that Coach Whittemores work is starting to pay off. Sarah Swift had a perfect record from the foul line going nine of nine, while Brionna Reece and Brooke Brown each only missed one of their shots. Together the three made up the bulk of Johnson Countys scoring with Swift landing 21, Reece 20, and Brown 16.
Along with a strong defensive showing from Roark, Brandy Dugger, and Mary Taylor, the Lady Longhorns were able to come out of the first quarter tied at 12. Although they fell behind by nine at the end of the first half at 24-33, the Lady Longhorns tenacity showed through in the second to cut the lead back to three at 36-39. With players like number 44, Savanna Summers, who scored her 1000th career point late in the fourth, East was able to keep their momentum and deny Johnson County an important win.
Even though the game didnt go their way ultimately, Whittemore was quick to point out that the teams ability to persevere was one of their most endearing qualities. These girls are fighters and great team mates, said Whittemore. They went to war and they lost this battle, but were not done fighting. We have two regular season games left and the tournament. Yes, we did get beat today, but we live to fight another day. Our objective is to go into this tournament and make some memories.
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