Lady Eagles Cruise to Third Straight Title

Jessie Stidham lays one in for the Lady Eagles. (Photo/Martha Ladd)

Jessie Stidham lays one in for the Lady Eagles. (Photo/Martha Ladd)

SUMTER – The Lady Eagles of Richard Winn Academy went into Saturday’s SCISA Class A state championship game with a lot on the line – an undefeated record and a third consecutive state title was up for grabs against Holly Hill Academy’s Lady Raiders, and the Lady Eagles did not disappoint. Led by junior Jaycie Johnson’s 26 points, the Lady Eagles achieved the elusive ‘three-peat’ with a 59-32 victory, closing out their remarkable 2014-2015 season with a 28-0 record.

“We’ve got a senior class that bought in,” RWA head coach Jason Haltiwanger said after Saturday’s win. “These three seniors (Emily Brigman, Cassidy Branham and Jessie Stidham) will go down as the winningest players in Richard Winn history. It’s evident with their work ethic and unselfishness. As freshmen, they played here and lost by four. In middle school, they won three championships. Their overall record is 165-5 as a whole career. They’re winners in every sense of the word.”

The Lady Eagles started off the game with a 9-0 run with Johnson dominating the stretch scoring the first 7 points of the game. The Lady Eagle defense forced many turnovers in the early stages of the game, preventing Holly Hill Academy from putting their offense in motion. Although Johnson was whistled for her second personal foul with 3:47 on the clock and had to come off the floor, some inside shooting from Stidham and Bailey Taylor helped put the Lady Eagles up 15-3 at the first buzzer.

The temporary loss of Johnson might have boosted the morale of the Lady Raiders, but the Lady Eagles’ squad is not about one player, Haltiwanger noted.

“We’ve had the adversity. We’ve had injuries, we’ve had sickness, and some different player steps up every time,” he said. “Jessie Stidham has been a rock. She had 17 (in a semifinal game where Johnson, double-teamed, was held to only 4). You can’t say enough about Jessie Stidham. She’s been a post player all her life, but this year Alyssa Atkerson, our point guard, went out (sick) for a month. Jessie stepped in and played point guard and kept us floating all year.”

Holly Hill’s struggles would continue into the second quarter as the Lady Eagle defense all but shut them out from the floor. Six of the Lady Raiders’ 9 points came from the free throw line in the second frame. Abbott Hutto drained a 3-pointer with 2:52 left in the half, cutting the Richard Winn lead to 19-12 as the Lady Eagles’ offense hit upon a dry spell that ran nearly 3 minutes off the clock. Richard Winn rallied late in the quarter, going on a 7-0 run highlighted by a 3-ball from Taylor with 1:26 on the clock. The run sent the Lady Eagles into halftime with a 28-12 lead.

“I told my girls not to worry about the scoreboard in every game this year,” Haltiwanger said. “Focus on improving every day as a team and we will take each game day by day. We never looked at the long-term success but continued to improve off our short-term success on the court and in life and we will reach our ultimate success.”

The Lady Eagles steam-rolled through the beginning of the third quarter with an early 8-2 run that slowly but surely began to close the door on Holly Hill Academy. The run extended Richard Winn’s lead to 34-14 at the 6:21 mark. Led by the production of Johnson on both ends of the court, Richard Winn dominated the third quarter by extending their lead 47-20 going into the final chapter.

The Lady Eagles began the final 8 minutes of their undefeated season with another scoring run headed by Johnson to seal the fate of Holly Hill Academy. Atkerson floated in a layup with 6:25 to play, extending the Richard Winn lead to 49-20. A turnaround jump shot in the paint by Johnson upped the ante to 52-20 with 4:31 to go, and a smooth spin move in the lane propelled Stidham to the basket with 3:52 left, making it 54-20.

As the clock wound down, Haltiwanger let his starting five take a curtain call, sending in the reserves to mop up the damage.

“Jessie, Cassidy and Emily, they’re just a coach’s dream, to have the savviness those girls have, the heart they have and the unselfishness they have,” Haltiwanger said, “to go along with some talented post players like Jaycie and Alyssa at guard, and Bailey Taylor played her tail off.

“We have a motto, ‘We play unto the Lord.’ The god that created us and lets us come play this game, we play unto Him,” Haltiwanger added, “and these three live that and they graduate, whether they won a championship or not, they graduate as the most victorious athletes in Richard Winn history because of the way they do it, the way they go about it, doing it the right way.”

The Lady Eagles graduate a lot of talent, but have a lot returning to a program that can only be classified as a dynasty.

“Even though we do not have a lot of seniors, I have to go into next year thinking how do I replace great players with excellent qualities about themselves who worked hard for me and continued to make great decisions off the court as well,” Haltiwanger said. “We look at possession by possession. We’ll go in and try to work hard in the off season, and that’s where it’s won. Our girls buy in during the off-season. They’re in the weight room, they’re jumping ladder drills when all the other girls are at the beach.”

 

RWA: 15-13-18-11 – 59

HH: 3-9-8-12 – 32

RWA: Jessie Stidham 12, Jaycie Johnson 26, Bailey Taylor 12, Emily Brigman 4, Alyssa Atkerson 3, Callie Thigpen 2. HH: Kaleign Thompson 2, Abbott Hutto 14, Kristi O’Connell 8, Rebecca Cantley 5, Ashley Crider4 Sarah Becker 1.