March 29, 2010
Rome, Ga. - For more than two decades, the immediate days following the end of a season have always been tough for Vic Mitchell.
That's not saying the veteran head coach of the women's basketball team at Shorter College was in a negative mood - Mitchell always seems to find the positive in even the most negative moments of life.
When that final buzzer signals the end of that last game, so too ends the hours, the days and the months spent coaching young women in a sport he loves, and Mitchell uses those first few days afterward to simply wind down and reflect.
This year, however, it's been hard for the Shorter coach to take a well-deserved break.
Though his face showed the normal fatigue related to someone who works long and hard, the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice were proofs that Mitchell was still floating on a basketball "Cloud 9" after seeing the Lady Hawks achieve greatness.
"A really good season became a great season," Mitchell said about his Lady Hawks, who recorded a third-straight 20-win season capped with a bid to the NAIA National Championship. "It was exciting for this team and for this program. It was a good season before we got the bid and was enhanced by the bid. It made it a great season."
Goodness led to greatness in more ways than one for the Lady Hawks during their 2009-10 campaign. In working to secure a 22-10 overall record, the team had to overcome obstacles that often trip up others - injuries and new faces on the roster.
"When things happened to us, they got closer and closer with each other," said Mitchell. "They had faith in each other and they had their own personal faith."
That faith, the coach pointed out, was made even deeper through the team devotionals led by assistant coach Kristy Brown.
"There's no doubt in my mind that played a role in our season," he said. "They believed."
The fruit of that belief was seen not only in what the Lady Hawks accomplished as a team, but also in what they did as individuals to contribute to the program's success.
Sophomore guard Kelly Ellison, who transferred to Shorter after starting her collegiate career at Stetson, provided the icing on the cake last week when she was named an honorable mention NAIA All-American after leading the Lady Hawks in scoring, assists and steals.
That honor came on the heels of being selected to the All-SSAC squad along with another newcomer to the Shorter team, senior transfer Holly Bawden, who led the Lady Hawks in rebounding.
True freshman Shelby Farrer served notice in her first stint on the college level, turning what was expected to be a learning process into an impact season. The former Model High standout from Rome was named the SSAC's Freshman of the Year after filling a huge void created when junior veteran and starting center Megan Queen was lost for the season after just four games due to an injury.
Joining Farrer on the SSAC's All-Freshman team was wing Ashley Harris, who like Farrer responded when asked to step up after senior guard Tamara Weatherby was sidelined for over a month with injuries.
Weatherby, who led the team in scoring during the early stages of the season before getting hurt, overcame her own woes, and along with fellow senior and four-year teammate Whitni Tucker, departs as the program's winningest player with 75 victories in her four years.
No doubt the Lady Hawks will miss their senior leaders, as well as Bawden and senior Tabatha Jenkins, who was the team's leading shot-blocker this year, but the Lady Hawks and Mitchell believe that while they will use the leadership legacy provided by the departing seniors, they will also use the lessons learned to maintain the level that Shorter needs to achieve in its quest for championship success.
The biggest lesson, Mitchell said, came at the national tourney in Jackson, Tenn., where although the Lady Hawks lost their opening round game to five-time national champion and top-seeded Oklahoma City University, saw first-hand what is needed to take that next step.
"We drew one of the best two teams in the field of 32," said Mitchell, who saw OCU advance to the NAIA Fab Four that included two other programs Shorter played against this season, SSAC rival Lee University and eventual national champion Union (Tenn.) University. "It was a really tough draw for us. They were the hottest team in the country coming in.
"But we don't want to focus on that particular game. I want to focus on what it took to get there. Every game is important during the regular season. You say that every year, but now our team saw that first hand."
Turning a loss or two into a win during the regular season clearly plays a role in the all-important seeding process at the national event, helping a team like Shorter improve its position from being a low No. 8 seed that would play a top seed, to one as a higher seed against a lesser touted team for the opening round.
Unlike the last Lady Hawks' team to play in the national tourney when the 2000-01 Lady Hawks returned home after a first-round setback, this year's squad stayed an extra day to see how the other programs in the event played.
"[The team] got a chance to see other teams play, so they had an idea of just what kind of teams were in the nationals," said Mitchell. "They saw that there were teams they could play with. The next step for us is to work to become a No. 4, 5 or 6 seed in the tournament to avoid having to play a top seed. It's not far away, but it will be the hardest step we've taken in the last five years when Shorter made the commitment to win championships.
"We're close to being there. We aren't there yet, but we're close. Our entire athletic program want to be able to compete for championships and that takes hard work. The hardest part is ahead of us, maintaining where we are and improving upon it."