By REID TUCKER
The lives of Jasmine Flock and Kaitlyn Carroll changed forever over the course of Wednesday, Feb. 22.
That morning the two recent Ponce de Leon High School graduates and their teammates on the Lady Pirates basketball team clinched a 55-52 win against Newberry in the final game of the state Class 1A tournament to win PDL’s third girls’ basketball championship. They returned home that night to a hero’s welcome. Fire trucks and police vehicles from Holmes County joined a victory procession of almost 40 cars escorting the Lady Pirates back to their home gym, where more than 300 friends, family and fans threw confetti, snapped photos and cheered.
It was a reception like nothing either girl had ever experienced. Even now, more than four months later, the two of them still practically crackle with excitement when they talk about how it first felt to be champions. Carroll said their homecoming was “like the midnight premiere of a movie” and Flock was similarly affected. “It felt like 50 million people were here and they were all here for us,” Flock added. “More and more people kept coming in behind them. It was just awesome. It was great to feel that everyone was so proud us of for accomplishing our goal.”
Ponce de Leon won the state title in 2000 but fell in the Final Four during the ’06-’07 season and last year let another playoff run slip away when Graceville got the upper hand in the regional finals. Head coach Tim Alford said winning the state championship is always the objective at the start of each season, so the frustrations of the past few years served to stoke the team’s fire more than ever. He said his players decided early to make the 2011-2012 season one for the history books.
“I asked [the girls] over and over, ‘How do you want to be remembered?’” Alford said. “I told them, ‘If you win, history will remember you.’ To get so close but yet not make it all the way time after time did not sit well with us. We were really prepared now and everyone was on the same page. The team was as focused as any group I’ve ever had.”
The Lady Pirates’ year was about as good as it can get as they posted a 28-2 record to complete their 10th-straight winning season on the road to the championship. PDL won three big games in the span of five days to make it to Lakeland, the site of the state tournament, defeating South Walton in the second round of regional play on Feb. 18. Making matters sweeter for PDL, the Pirates had to get through archrival Holmes County in the semi-final round, which they did to the tune of 52-4 in their 19th straight victory over the Blue Devils.
The final game itself was as dramatic as they come, as the Lady Pirates soared in the first half, posting a 28-9 lead over Newberry after the first 16 minutes of play. However, they nearly found themselves in overtime against the Panthers, who stopped PDL from making a single 3 in the entire second half and slowly worked to close the gap. Only two missed free throws from Newberry’s Lasharrah Nattiel kept the game from being tied, giving Ponce the 55-52 victory.
Alford said Flock played with more emotion than he’d ever seen her display as she shined in her final court appearance, matching her earlier season-high score of 26 points by hitting 8-for-11 from the field and 10-of-12 from the stripe. She also had 12 rebounds and was solid on defense all night. Flock, who led the Pirates in scoring on the year, earned a total of 1,186 career points, with 43 coming in her last two games as a senior.
“We knew it was our last game, so we had nothing to hold back,” Flock said. “It was pretty much all or nothing. I know we’d wanted that state championship ring for a long time and had been working for it every year. I had the mindset that I was going to do everything in my power to make it happen for me and my team.”
For Carroll, who scored eight points from the free throw line in the championship game and helped to hold the team together through the rough patches, the win in Lakeland was something akin to destiny. As a student at Ponce de Leon schools since kindergarten, she grew up seeing basketball championships as something the whole community believed in. It was up to her and her teammates, she said, to prove that faith was not unfounded.
“I can remember, back when we were younger, our teachers always telling us ‘Hang in there, stay with it, your group will win it, you’ll get it done,’ so it’s always been in the back of my mind,” Carroll said. “Everyone believed in us and believed in me. I didn’t think there was anything that could stop me from winning a championship.”
In spite of a gratifying end to a season, not everything about the victory was as good as Alford and the girls would have wanted. The year was marred somewhat by an unfortunate accident in the last practice before the start of the season which sidelined Jaicee Mayo, the third senior on the team, with a torn ACL for most of the schedule. Though Mayo was able to return late in the season, not having her on the court for much of the time is something Alford, Flock and Carroll see as a blemish on an otherwise sterling run.
Back in the present, time has moved on. Flock and Carroll graduated on June 7 and are now enjoying their last summer of freedom before starting school again in the fall. Flock will attend Alabama’s Enterprise State Community College, where she plans to major in physical therapy, while Carroll starts at Northwest Florida State College to pursue a degree in childcare.
Neither said if basketball is something that they’ll be involved with at the collegiate level, but the sport itself and what they accomplished in it is something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Although only months have passed since winning the title, by all accounts going out at the height of achievement in their sport, Flock and Carroll still have a hard time believing it all really happened.
Sometimes these things take a little getting used to, Carroll said, especially when they are the biggest moments so far in one’s life.
“Sometimes I’ll catch myself thinking about what I should have done differently in certain games or how I could have done this or that, and then I’ll think, ‘Hey, I won a state championship,’” Carroll said. “It hasn’t really set in yet for me or for anyone on the team. I have to remind myself sometimes that I was there. I did that.
“It was the highlight of not just my senior year but of my whole high school life. Playing basketball was a fun experience for me. I’ll never forget any of it.”