July 22, 2014 7:09:51 PM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
When Laura Lee Holman coaches the next New Hope High School girls basketball season, she will have some tangible proof of what the team will be trying to accomplish.
"The hardest thing about the past five years is that you have been selling a vision," Holman said. "You have asked to the girls to buy into something and invest into something that you really can't put your hands on. That has made it hard. Now, that we have been to the Big House. Now that we have been in a position to win a state championship, things will be different.
"Now, the girls know what hard work is all about. They know what it takes to get to the program to this point and then past it as well."
After falling one game shy of a return to the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson and the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state tournament two seasons ago, the Lady Trojans took the next step a year later.
New Hope finished 26-3 and returned to the Big House for the first time since the 1985 season. For this season's success, Holman has been chosen as The Dispatch's Large School Girls Basketball All-Area Coach of the Year.
"This season was amazing," Holman said. "It didn't end the way we wanted but it has been a good learning experience. It does not always take a trophy to reward you for your efforts. Sometimes you have to see what you can take away from an experience. How will you make it better and not what did you get (physically) from the experience. When I first got this job, my goal was to bring Lady Trojan basketball back to the Big House. New Hope was a power in the 1980s, but they had not been able to get back.
"These kids happened to jump on board. They were eighth graders. They worked really hard. What made it special was from the get-go, they believed in me and each other. We didn't know what state championship basketball looked like, but we knew we would get there. We weren't sure of how or when. But we kept getting better until we figured out what championship basketball looked like."
New Hope senior guard Moesha Calmes remembers the early days when the Lady Trojans were learning to play together. Even though some days were longer than others, the goal was to always compete for a state championship.
"Coach always believed in us, even when we doubted ourselves," Calmes said. "With eight seniors this season, we knew how important this year was. We felt like we let it get away (the year before). Really all of the hard work paid off when we were finally able to get to Jackson.
"Coach always reminded us how special we could become. She taught us about how we could earn our spot in history for years to come. We took that as personal challenge. Our goal this season was to work harder than we ever had before to see if we could reach those goals."
The 2012-13 season saw a junior-dominated squad finish 25-5. New Hope beat Starkville in the opening round of the state playoffs but led a big lead slip away in a 62-59 loss to Jackson Lanier in the semifinal round - a game which costs New Hope a chance to go to Jackson that season.
Typically, teams use last-second losses as a motivational factor for the next season. Holman thought the season end did provide some motivation. However, she also thought the team slipped into some complacency.
"For the first time with this group, I thought I saw a little bit of the big head in October and November," Holman said. "I had to remind them every day in practice that this was not going to be a cakewalk. Nobody is going to just give it to you. We had some games early where we started some freshmen and sophomores. We did that because they were the ones working the hardest.
"We were looking for an identity. In late December, the girls really realized how hard they were going to have to work to reach the next level. We beat Starkville in the (Humphrey Coliseum at Mississippi State) and then we came back home and beat Tupelo by about 20. Tupelo was ranked. They were one of the favorites. That was when it really clicked. We knew what we were capable of doing after that."
For Holman, the climb was long. A former basketball and softball standout at New Hope, the Troy University graduate returned home during the summer of 2009. Her first New Hope squad was senior-laden. However, some player conduct issues led some struggles on the court and defections from the roster.
"When I took the job I was 23 years old," Holman said. "Really it was "my way or the highway" philosophy and that was wrong. John Wooden always taught that you had to love your players to get the most you can out of them. It took me a while to learn that."
While Holman inherited some problems with the job, she also inherited a mega-talented eighth grade unit. The hard coaching continued the following year as now a freshman-laden team struggled to a 6-16 record.
"West Point was ranked and we played them one of the best games of the season," Holman said. "So there were glimpses. Back then, I remember all the line drills the team ran after making 38 turnovers in a game. We were getting beat 30 or 40 points some night.
"In January of that season, I changed some of the things we were doing. At that time, there was no off-the-court relationship. Eventually, we began to bond both on and off the court. Once we started giving in a little and working together, the team really took off. That gave us a great springboard into their sophomore season."
By design, Holman also tinkered with the schedule. Her third New Hope squad won 15 more games, while finishing with a 21-6 overall record. While the success built confidence, Holman said her squad might have made the jump too quickly. She would have preferred more close games so the squad could have been more efficient in time and score situations over the next two years.
"We added Taylor Baudoin and that was really the missing piece," Holman said. "That gave us a major presence down low. It also gave us someone for D.J. (Sanders) to go against every day in practice. It made us a lot better team. The biggest thing is we had balance. We had a great group of girls who worked very hard together. Some of them won a state championship in softball and played for another, so they had tasted success."
It was the type of success that Holman envisioned after a very difficult first year of coaching in Cottondale, Florida. After graduating from Troy, Holman coached one season at Cottondale where she carried the Class 2A squad to its first-ever appearance in the Florida High School Activities Association's Final Four. She did this while coaching the softball team as well.
On the day, the Lady Hornets were put out in the state semifinals, Holman coached three softball games and had to catch a ride to the basketball arena in time to coach that squad. A workday which included six academic classes and no practice sessions before 3:30 in the afternoon made Holman rethink her decision to enter coaching.
The call from New Hope soon followed, as did the return of success for the Lady Trojans.
"The community support for these girls the last two years has been very rewarding," Holman said. "When someone comes to see my team play, I want them to see a team that works hard. They are fundamentally sound. They play well together and they enjoy what they are doing. You will have nights when you don't make shots. You have to work even harder on those nights.
"Falling short (of the state championship) may have been a blessing in disguise. It gives us something to work for. It leaves us more room to grow. Now, the next team can go out there and try to be even better than this team."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter