By PATRICK CASEY
The South Walton Seahawks trailed the Chipley Tigers for three quarters but outscored the Washington County squad 23-10 in the fourth quarter to capture the Class A girls basketball championship in Lakeland on Wednesday afternoon.
Junior Casey Perot led the Walton County unit to their first team championship in the sport in school history as she scored 13 points while her sister, sophomore Mackenzie Perot, added 12 as the Seahawks rallied from an early deficit to hold off an athletic and aggressive Chipley squad that was also gunning for their first title in the sport.
Chipley opened the game by pounding the boards, taking a 6-3 lead midway through the first quarter that they expanded to 12-7 after the opening eight minutes of play.
The Seahawks rallied to within 17-14 with 3:48 left in the half and further trimmed the deficit to 25-23 at intermission as the Santa Rosa Beach squad struggled with turnovers while Chipley went through a period of cool shooting from the floor that kept the game tight.
The Seahawks got within 30-29 in the middle of the third quarter only to be whistled for three charging calls that allowed the Tigers to push the lead out to 37-29. South Walton shook off the lost possessions to close the gap to 39-35 with Chipley’s leading scorer, Rakeia Sorey, picking up her fourth foul with less than 10 seconds remaining in the quarter.
With Sorey out to start the fourth period, South Walton got their trapping defense going, tying the game at 39-all just 90 seconds into the final stanza, with Casey Perot hitting the go-ahead basket for the Seahawks’ first lead of the game at 41-39 with 6:23 to play.
The Tigers could not find their shooting touch for the remainder of the contest as the Seahawks used the charity stripe to seal the victory, hitting 20-of-33 attempts over the 32-minute contest with guards Eve Heffron (6-of-7), Morgan Kennedy (3-of-6) and Tayler Menard (2-of-5) hitting enough free throws to hold off Chipley.
Heffron, a senior, had 10 points and had an excellent run in the playoffs as she combined with Kennedy, Menard and Katie Logan to form a formidable group in coach Kevin Craig’s 2-3 zone that bedeviled the opposition’s guards throughout four playoff games.
Senior Kati Trejo had six points and helped Perot fight off a determined group of rebounders for Chipley in the fourth quarter as the Tigers’ championship hopes slipped away.
South Walton hit 19-of-37 shots from the field while Chipley connected on only 21-of-65 from the floor. The Tigers held the rebounding edge (38-32) and forced 22 turnovers from the Seahawks while committing 20 of their own.
The Tigers (23-5), who had seven seniors on the squad, got 14 points from Sorey and Jasmine Belser with guard Ebony Williams adding 10. Sorey made all four of the Tigers’ shots from behind the three-point line, hitting 4-of-7 attempts from that range, but saw her teammates struggle while she was confined to the bench with four fouls for enough of the fourth quarter for the Seahawks to gain the lead. Sorey eventually fouled out and three other Chipley players ended the game with four fouls as the Tigers committed 23 to only nine against South Walton.
“A lot of things were going Chipley’s way in the first half but I challenged my players in the locker room to go out and not play scared,” coach Kevin Craig said on Friday morning at the team’s pep rally celebration. “We ground it out and never quit fighting. Sorey getting her fourth foul was key because she really hurt us from outside. We were able to get our trap going and make enough baskets and free throws to get the win. We had a great practice at the University of South Florida in Tampa on Monday, got past The Villages on Tuesday and found a way to win it all on Wednesday.”
Barb Stratton, who serves as an administrative assistant at South Walton High School but also handles videotaping the Seahawks games amongst many other athletic duties, said on Friday at the celebration, “The trip was fantastic. A once-in-a-lifetime-like experience. The girls handled it well, got to have lunch at USF and watch their women’s team practice on Monday. It was a tremendous experience for everyone that went.”
South Walton (25-6) celebrated the victory in front of the student body on Friday morning with Superintendent Carlene Anderson in attendance. “I was going to take a day off today,” she told the student body, “but this was too important to miss. I am so proud of this school and these young ladies and coach Craig.”
Tourney Notes: South Walton is now 6-2 in the playoffs in three trips. Kevin Craig finished his ninth season at the school and holds a record of 172-80 in that time. In 31 years as a head coach he holds a record of 681-253 with three state championships under his belt. Junior Casey Perot finished the season as the only player in double figures, averaging right at 10 points per game. The Seahawks won the title despite hitting only 52 percent of their free throws on the year, but got to the charity stripe 692 times, making 357. The Seahawks’ opponents made only 131-of-287 attempts at the line. The Seahawks did not make a three-point shot in their two games played in Lakeland and had only two attempts from behind the arc. South Walton posted a 15-1 mark after Christmas Break, losing only to Walton 67-30 in DeFuniak Springs on Jan. 25. The state title win sent six seniors out as champions: Eve Heffron, Tayler Menard, Morgan Kennedy, Meagan McGee, Kati Trejo and Eliza Langille.
Title Notes: The girls basketball title was the fifth for Walton County in the sport and the first since Paxton won the last of four titles during the 1996-97 season. Paxton also won titles in 1985-86, 1993-94 and 1995-96. Ponce de Leon won state titles in the sport in 1988-89, 1999-2000 and 2011-12 giving the five Area 5 members a total of eight titles since the 1985-86 season.