Competitive fire has Dalton girls in hunt for first state title

Staff photo by Patrick MacCoon / Dalton senior Grace Ridley, center, works with teammates at practice Thursday prior to Friday's GHSA Class AAAAA state semifinal against Midtown.
Staff photo by Patrick MacCoon / Dalton senior Grace Ridley, center, works with teammates at practice Thursday prior to Friday's GHSA Class AAAAA state semifinal against Midtown.

DALTON, Ga. — Hannah Harris knows her Dalton girls' basketball team is too experienced and battle-tested to fall for coach-speak at this time of year.

The Dalton High School girls' basketball coach is, by her own admission, too honest for it anyway. So when she tells her bunch that the GHSA Class AAAAA championship, which will be decided in the next week, is anyone's to seize, she means it.

The first of two more necessary steps to win what would be the successful program's initial state title comes at 5 p.m. Friday at the University of West Georgia, where the Lady Catamounts (21-9) will face Atlanta's Midtown (26-5) in a semifinal. It's a daunting task against a team that has won each of its three playoff games by 20-plus points, but then again, overcoming obstacles has kind of been Dalton's thing this season.

"It's not an excuse, it's just reality, that this is the sickest season I've ever been involved with in basketball," Harris said. "We've had all sorts of things, from injuries and different types of flu. Really, until the end of January we had people missing and it was continual game-changing lineup things, but thankfully nothing major."

Once the Lady Catamounts overcame the obstacles, which included star post Grace Ridley missing six games due to injury, they've played, not surprisingly, their best ball. Included in their current seven-game streak of wins are two over fellow Region 7 program Cartersville, which is alive on the other side of the bracket and plays Atlanta's Maynard Jackson in the early semifinal Friday. The winners will meet in the title game next Thursday in Macon.

"I guess you could say we are peaking at the right time, but it's really the only time we've been healthy since early," Harris said. "The fact that we are here at this point does not surprise me because with the way 5A is this year — with so many young teams — I felt we had a really good chance."


Harris, a former Dalton player, saw the potential four years ago when she arrived after a stint at Murray County. The Lady Catamounts were in a rut, having produced only one winning season since 2012-13.

"I came here four years ago, and this group were freshmen and we went 9-14 that year," she said. "I saw then, though, they had the grit and toughness and talent to eventually develop into a championship-caliber team. We also had some older girls who helped us get here, and that's what you have to have."

You also need some star power and a competitive intangible that can't be taught.

The star is Ridley. The 6-foot senior — she has also been a volleyball star for Dalton, which made the state semifinals in that sport this past fall — averaged 17 points and 14 rebounds this winter, her third consecutive basketball season with double-double averages. She is the focal point defensively of every team Dalton faces, and though she still gets frustrated with the extra attention at times, the team is always front and center for Ridley.

"When I was a sophomore and still as a junior when it first started happening, I had to figure out how to overcome my frustration," said Ridley, who will play at North College College next season. "It honestly opens up so much for my teammates, and when you have a team that is as good as we are, it's not a big deal anymore because they will pay for it.

"I don't want to say my team takes it personally when other teams focus on me, but it definitely gives them some drive."

Harris backed up Ridley's assessment.

"I've said this every time I talk about her, but she is a special kid and a special player," Harris said. "She wants to win, whether that means she gets two points or 30 points, she wants to see us succeed. If that means she has to get every rebound or guard the tiniest guard on the other team, she will do whatever it takes. She's so central in facilitating others, and it's never a bother for her."

With Ridley and senior guards Kemara Washington and Emma Hefner, junior forward Jolie Wingfield and experienced depth, the talent is there. What has ignited the deep postseason run, Harris said, is a competitive spirit she has needed to turn down at times.

"They are super competitive, like 'catch you in a back alley' competitive," Harris said with a smile. "There's been drills I've had to call off in practice. I believe in competition in practices. I think it elevates everybody, and it gives the younger kids a chance to compete and win some minutes. Generally speaking, if you lose a drill, you run — and nobody wants to run. They will get after each other and it can get heated, but that kind of mentality really shows up in tough games.

"Really, the best thing I can say about this team is it never backs down. They not only want to win, they really believe it."

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