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The Westlake Lady Lions played some seriously impressive ball last season, tearing through almost all of the competition in Georgia on their way to their first championship in school history.
“It was an awesome year,” Westlake girls’ coach Hilda Hankerson said. “It was one of those memorable seasons because not only were we considered the best team in 7A but they voted us the best team in the state of Georgia as well. I was named USA Today Coach of the Year in the state of Georgia so it was far beyond just a state championship and we got the first bid to ever play in the GEICO Nationals for a public school.
“The only other school was St. Francis and they went as a private school so we were the only public school girls’ team. It just kept snowballing. The longer we played the more accolades seemed to fall our way. It was just a blessing. When you say the Lord blesses your socks off that is exactly what he did–more than we could ever receive in the natural.”
The Lady Lions won 19 straight games on the way to the title-clinching victory over Newton with Anastasia Warren (11.7 points per game), Taylor Hosendove (11.4), Raven Johnson (10.8) and Simone Lett (7.8) leading the team in scoring.
But this season, Johnson, a sophomore, is the only top scorer back for the defending champs with everyone else suiting up for a new team in college.
“We’re going to be very, very young,” Hankerson said. “We graduated six seniors and all six are in college playing ball so that tells you the strength of the team. But we got some good athletes that we are returning and they will make their mark in this state as well. How soon they do it is going to be up to them and how hard they want to work right now. We aren’t bone dry but we are young and we know we got to stand on our own not on what we’ve done in the past. We are not hanging on to that.”
Each game is broken down into four quarters which inspired this 4 Questions section for the 2018-19 South-metro Atlanta area preview but Coach Hankerson answered a few more questions.
With more than 500 wins on your resume and annual playoff appearances as well, did you experience more joy or relief once you secured your first championship?
I believe it was a combination because it wasn’t like our team had never been good. Ironically, many people that have been a part of our program or have known about our program came up to me when they shook my hand in the street or in the store or wherever it might be and they would say ‘Coach what number is that? Two or three? How many do you have? They believed it was more since the program was so strong or had been strong. Some people called me a liar. You know you got two or three of those championships.
What did it mean to you for the 2017-18 team to win the program’s first title?
The graduating class had been to the Elite Eight for three consecutive years and our mission was to Hate the Eight. We wanted more than just the Elite Eight. That senior class that played in the Elite Eight for three consecutive years just tells you the greatness of the program and we just weren’t able to get past it. With that being in front of us, it was definitely something very special and three girls out of the six that played on varsity for all four of their years. For those three girls, it meant a lot and to have them show that leadership and refuse to lose.
You don’t get there without the talent but when you get there you have to refuse to lose and I had kids with that mindset going down the stretch. It was a difficult trek cause when you are loaded with that kind of talent it takes a lot to balance it and keep everybody as happy as you can keep them. It took us coming together in the end and saying ‘Hey above all else we want this championship.’ Regardless of what anybody else was saying out there in the press, in our home, cousin and ’em, it didn’t matter. We had to come together as one and that is what we did.
What is the most important thing your team must improve on this season?
Understanding how to lead. Now we won’t have a returning senior with experience so they’ve got to learn to lead themselves and do it with confidence.
What will surprise opponents about your team this season?
I think we will be competitive. A lot of people know that we lost six athletes that are playing ball in college. When you lose six they look at you like surely you don’t have a whole lot. To know that we will be competitive will be a bit of a surprise to some people.
Which team outside of yours will be the biggest surprise in the region this season?
I can’t even answer that. No comment. I’m going to leave that one alone right there.
What is one rule change you would’ve liked to see go into effect this season?
I wish we had a shot clock. It keeps the game moving and it keeps anyone from holding the ball to get someone to commit a foul. If they put in a 30-second clock, it allows you to keep the game moving and it allows you to play equal. I really wish we had a shot clock.