By Brian Paglia
For the Dutchtown Lady Bulldogs, a possible Final Four appearance came down to one simple, yet crucial error.
Seconds were winding down in their Sweet Sixteen game against Hardaway in the Class AAAA state playoffs, Dutchtown led by one and the ball was rolling on the floor. All Dutchtown had to do was dive to the ground and smother the ball.
But no Lady Bulldogs player did. A Hardaway player, instead, astutely grabbed the ball, hit a quick shot and sunk Dutchtown's Final Four hopes.
"We think about it a lot," Dutchtown senior Brittney Strickland said," because it was real heartbreaking. It shouldn't have happened. We can't let it happen again this year."
That moment left an indelible mark on Dutchtown. It believes it has the potential to reach a Final Four this season, but if there is one thing the Lady Bulldogs learned from the playoffs last season, it's that the difference between playing in the Final Four or falling short can come down to some of the most rudimentary parts of the game.
"This year I'm drilling hustle," Dutchtown coach Angela Williams said. "I'm drilling intensity. Sacrificing everything for the ball. That's our game plan this year. "
"We know that every little thing counts," Strickland said. "So we know that we have to go after everything, the little things. Last year we did the big things, but we didn't do the little things that matter the most."
Looking back, the 2008-09 girls basketball season in the Southern Crescent was remarkably successful. Nine teams made the state playoffs in various classifications. Two teams -- Jonesboro and Henry County -- advanced to the Final Four.
So as the season gets under way this week, the question is whether Jonesboro and Henry County are capable of repeating their Final Four runs of a season ago.
And what does it take to reach the season's pinnacle moment?
"The first ingredient you have to have is good players," said Jimmy Fields, who coached the Lady Cardinals to their Final Four last season before leaving this summer to become athletic director and assistant principal at Twiggs County High.
"You've got to get that team chemistry, get them to play as a team. As a coach, you have to be that motivater."
As Jonesboro cruised through its season, winning 29 straight games at one point, Fields said he had to monitor his team's complacency. When he noticed his team lose focus, Fields would close the gym, bring in watercoolers and subject his team to two or three hours of grueling practices.
But after one of Fields' arduous practices, food and drinks always awaited the Lady Cardinals.
"I'd always reward the girls," Fields said. "Just to let them know I still cared about them."
At Dutchtown, Williams let her team come together and collectively decide on their goals for the season. On a piece of paper, Strickland and her teammates wrote down personal and team goals -- grabbing 30 rebounds a game, communicating on pick-and-rolls, not missing layups.
Oh, and reaching the Final Four.
With the Lady Bulldogs three top scorers returning in Strickland, her twin sister Alyssa and small forward Abria Trice, it seems Dutchtown has that potential.
"We have to work hard," Strickland said, "becase we know everybody's coming after us this year. We're wearing the target, so we have to keep doing what we're doing, work hard and get better than we were last year."