By Jeffery Armstrong
On the eve of the biggest basketball game in school history, Mt. Zion senior guard Shaka Dennison took time to reflect on what she's been through in four years.
"When I first got here, we were 6-19, then we we're 4-21 the next year. Losing games just got to me," Dennison said. "When I was a freshman, I used to cry after every loss. It feels so good to be where we are right now."
Where Mt. Zion is right now is one game away from playing for a state championship. The Lady Bulldogs face the No. 1 Collins Hill Lady Eagles, perfect at 31-0, tonight in the state Class AAAAA Final Four at the Gwinnett Center Arena at 7 p.m.
Dennison said the team, thanks to former coach Edwin Turnipseed, learned from those early losses. Mt. Zion improved during her junior year, hovering around .500 and this year, they're 19-11 and surging, having defeated two Top-20 teams in the state tournament.
"Once we learned to get over these humps and losses and play as a team, we were okay," Dennison said. "We knew we could have a winning year."
Dennison said in order for her to be the team leader, there were things she had to do to help the team get to this point. She admits she was a little bit harsh on some teammates whom she felt didn't care about winning as much as she did.
"I had to learn to be patient and fulfill all the responsibilities of a leader," she said.
"I want to be a professional head coach one day, so I had to learn how to deal with different personalities."
The personalities of Dennison and the other Mt. Zion seniors are pretty much in sync right now. They are all feeling good about the way they're playing and want to advance even further.
"It's great to make it to the Final Four," said Whitney Linton, the only Mt. Zion player with state playoff experience. "At my previous school (Tri-Cities), it was first-round and out. I'm happy we advanced this far."
Linton said she and her teammates aren't worried about Collins Hill's ranking, especially since they've knocked off two ranked teams already. She said she plans to rebound well and stay focused tonight.
"I also need to go to the hole more," she said.
Lady Bulldogs head coach Dock Gammage gave senior Dionna Pearce credit for a big defensive rebound against Beach that helped secure that win. Pearce is proud of her team for doing well this season.
"It's been great this year. We've worked hard for so long n I'm going to hate to see it end," Pearce said.
"If we play our game and do what we have to do, we've got a good chance to win."
Milan Johnson, the team's senior center, echoed Pearce's statement their chances of winning if they play as a team.
"I'm very excited about what we've accomplished. The four years of hard work has paid off," she said. "When we play our game like we have so far, we usually do well."
Note: Collins Hill, the 2001 and 2002 state champs, is led by freshman forward Maya Moore, who averages 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Other key players include junior forward Greteya Kelley (12.4 points per game) and senior point guard Jasmine Herron (4.3 points per game).
Directions: To get to the Gwinnett Center Arena from Mt. Zion High, take 75 North to 285 East to 85 North.
Stay on 85 north and then get off on the Sugarloaf Parkway exit. Turn right onto Sugarloaf Parkway (it will dip under I-85) and the arena is about one mile on the left.