BY CORY WOODROOF
With a big change on the way, the Grace Christian Academy Lady Lions basketball team is making the best of their final year in 7-A.
They’re one of the best stories in Williamson County basketball this season: a small Christian school tucked back off of Old Hillsboro Road in its fourth year of TSSAA eligibility that has hit 20 wins for the first time in its program’s history (with a perfect 10-0 record in the district). They’ve a puncher’s chance to be GCA’s first basketball team to make it to the state tournament a year after winning its first district title.
The catch is that this is the final bow for the Lady Lions in this district before the massive leap up to face D-II competition next winter. It’s not that the LEADs and STEMs of the world don’t present their own problems; it’s the CPAs, BGAs and FRAs you have now worry about if you’re a GCA fan.
Nevertheless of this shift, head coach Tony McLeod and standout players Anna Smith and Audrey Sanders lead the charge to get this swan song in 7-A as far as it’ll go.
Along the way, they’re paving GCA history, making their future D-II opponents all the more nervous of having to having to hear these Lady Lions roar in their neck of the woods next fall.
A three-game improvement for the overall record might not seem like that big a jump, but for the Lady Lions, it’s a testament to their ability to adapt.
The 2017-18 season saw a squad of eight win 17 games and reach the second round of the region tournament, making the season to follow one of greater potential.
“We definitely knew [we were] capable,” Coach McLeod said of 2018’s possibilities.
McLeod is in his second year as the head coach of the team. He’s a Lee University grad, Ravenwood assistant and former college coach at Cumberland University, and he had coached some of the Lady Lions with Upward Stars before joining GCA.
“God just blessed us that Tony reached out,” GCA athletic director and boys head coach Len McKnatt said about having McLeod lead the program. “He’s just a total team player. He will do anything, not only for his team, but any of our other teams.”
McLeod said he was hoping the program would grow in his second year at the helm, and grow it surely did. The Lady Lions saw an influx of new players to grow the team to 14. As much as there’s strength in numbers, there’s also challenge.
“We knew the potential was there, but we also knew every year was a new year,” he said. “You start fresh…adding new faces to the program can change the culture of it.
“Culture is the one big thing we’ve talked about all of last year, and we’ve continued to build on this year. We knew we could do it; we weren’t sure if we would. But we’re very excited with where we’re at right now.”
For Sanders, a junior, notching a 20-win season was a matter of meeting the expectations they had set for themselves.
“I definitely knew that we were capable, like talent-wise,” Sanders said. “Everyone on our team has the skills and capabilities to do well and succeed in the role that they’re in. So it was just a matter of being able to work together with the new people coming in.
“I think, performance-wise, we’ve exceeded what I thought we were able to do.”
Smith said she was confident in the possibility, but was curious how the transition would go.
“I was afraid the chemistry would be off with the new freshmen, but I feel like the chemistry is even better than it was last year,” she said. “That’s helped us this year.”
Building a Culture
Sanders says that the team participated in a exercise called “Spotlights” that helped build off-court relationships.
“We’re able to highlight the special talents that everyone has, and their personalities,” she said. “That’s been able to help us see the other people we didn’t know as well in a better light and just get closer to them.”
She feels the culture at GCA has remained constant in her time there.
“We still have our same values of keeping God first, keeping our team close, making sure everyone’s involved,” she said.
“It’s a family atmosphere [at GCA],” McLeod said.
He says the team embraces a “be a star in your role” mentality, one that gives everyone importance in whatever they’re doing on the court.
Smith and Sanders are the offensive juggernauts for the Lady Lions, but the coach mentions players like Raychel Calvert, Carli Mason and Averi Thorne, who have taken roles off the stat sheet that still power the team to get wins.
Clicking When It Counts
The Lady Lions actually hit a three-game skid early in the season, in part due to fielding an incomplete roster.
The girls soccer team had a run to the state tournament right when the season was getting underway, which left McLeod without all of his Lady Lions. He was worried about tired legs and the transition for some from one sport to another. By the time those three losses set in, it made the coach think.
“We lost three in a low, and I was kind of thinking to myself, if we can get to Christmas break, maybe we’ll be refreshed afterwards. Well, I was thinking that, and all of a sudden, we started winning some games before Christmas break, and that’s when I think the turning point really happened.”
“And then,” he said with a smile, “I didn’t really want Christmas break to happen because we got in a little roll before Christmas break.”
The Lady Lions were without key seniors during the skid, which led the younger impact players like Smith and Sanders to take more of a leadership role with the team and gave the entire group more to do overall.
“That’s what got us farther,” Smith said.
The team hasn’t lost a game since Jan. 3 to East Hickman and are on a 11-game winning streak.
When asked about the story of the season, McLeod responded with one word: perseverance.
The team has been without senior leader Charlee Baker and was without senior Anna Kate Bechman, an offensive threat, for a week of play in the season.
“There’s always been something that’s come up,” he said. “Either someone’s been hurt, or someone’s been sick, or it feels like the odds have been against us. We were down four points the other night with 15 seconds to go, and came back and won…everything that we’ve had, we’ve always had something to overcome, and it’s bonded us closer together.”
A Bucket for Baker
Sanders looks back to a moment where Baker, unable to play with injury, was able to go out for senior night and get a bucket without any defense from the other team.
The main starting five players all got to be on the court together and see an old friend get a special layup.
She said she felt it was a great representation of the season and honored the soon-to-be-departing-seniors.
“They’re kind of like the center of the team; they’ve been here for five years,” Sanders said. “That, I thought, was really special.”
McLeod said it was his hope to have Baker be able to start, and Merrol Hyde head coach Jimmy Steen’s decision to allow Baker to get points.
“Awesome guy,” McLeod said of Steen. “That was just an emotional moment for all of us, seeing Charlee out there to get the basket.”
Post-Season on the Horizon
The Lady Lions had a bye in the first round of the 7-A tournament, but it all gets going in a major way once the semifinals kick in Friday night out at Merrol Hyde.
Smith said she feels the team has been well-prepared to take on the playoff slate.
“I feel like we’re more prepared this year to be in districts and regions because we’ve played harder teams in the regular season,” she said. “This year, we know how to fight through adversity.”
McLeod recognized the improving 7-A district and parallel region, and the harder schedule played. He hopes his team can keep things as even keel as possible before Friday’s tipoff.
“Just trying to keep things as normal as possible, doing what we’ve been doing,” he said as a key going into the game. “We’ve been blessed. These girls work so hard, day-in and day-out. It’s an easy job on our coaching staff when you have girls that want to be there every day, and have a positive environment, and culture. They’re just so good to each other.”
McLeod goes back to the Spotlights the team uses to lift each other up and bond — moments where the girls can’t rely on basketball-related compliments. He said he feels moments like that will make the difference in the end.
“They’ll help bring us together,” he said.
A Moment for GCA
With the Lady Lions making history with their on-court success, and GCA boys phenom junior Mason McKnatt eclipsing 2,000 points for his basketball career, it certainly feels like the hoops are coming alive at the school.
“It’s kind of surreal to feel like you’re living in the basketball age of GCA,” Sanders said. “When you look back, you feel like you’re building a legacy. It’s kind of a lot of weight to carry on your shoulders, a big responsibility, but it’s also kind of exciting to feel like you’re paving the way for future expectations.”
“It’s just really fun to be part of GCA’s first big milestones in basketball,” Smith added.
“That’s pretty special,” McKnatt said of the girls’ season accomplishments. “They’re just a fun group to be around. [It’s] fun to watch them play, and Tony and his assistant Kaila Carter, they do a great job.”
McLeod sees the hay put in the barn and commends is team for it.
“They’ve worked so hard; the team has worked to hard to achieve this,” McLeod said.
He looks back to last winter, when both GCA teams won the 7-A district tournaments.
“That’s when it kind of clicked, like, ‘Hey, we can have some success on the basketball court, and that’s carried over to this year.’
“It’s been tougher this year, but it’s also been more satisfying because it’s been tougher.”
Optimism for the Future
Life won’t get easier for either team once the district change sets in and they had to play some of the bigger private schools in the county. But the program is keeping its chin up as to where things go.
“The bar will be raised,” McKnatt said about moving GCA to D-II A. “We’ll be playing a bunch of schools that are established, have great programs, they’re going to be well-coached, and so it’s just going to make us better.”
“It’s going to be hard to get 20 wins for sure, but I want to show the other teams in the district that we’re meant to be there,” Smith said. “Because, as of right now, they see that we’re from what they would see as an easier district.”
The Lady Lions coach cites the overall school’s growth from elementary school beyond in basketball as something to be optimistic about for the future.
“We know next year’s going to be hard,” McLeod added. “We know it’s going to be difficult. We know every night’s going to be a battle. We just hope to be included in the conversation with that new district. We’re excited to join it.”
As for the immediate future? Sanders keys in on one word.
“State, hopefully,” she said.
“That’s a good word,” McLeod said with a smile.
Photos courtesy of Grace Christian Academy and Greg Buzek.