March 6, 2014 12:34:32 AM
It's only unexpected if you don't believe.
On paper, the Victory Christian Academy girls basketball team had reason to wonder at the start of the season if it could win a third-straight Alabama Christian Education Athletic Association title. The Lady Eagles lost seven seniors to graduation and had only one senior -- Victoria McDaniel -- to help guide a roster that featured nine underclassmen, including one eighth-grader.
But Victory Christian found reasons to believe through an ankle injury to junior center Rebekah Smith that forced sophomore forward Faith Miley to take her place in the post. The team also found plenty of reasons to hope despite losses to Hebron Christian and Central Academy in the regular season.
It wasn't until a victory against New Life Christian in the sub state tournament that Victory Christian finally believed it could win a third title in a row.
Buoyed by that double-digit victory after a closer decision in the regular season, Victory Christian rode that momentum and confidence to two more victories and another championship. Led by Miley, Smith, and Alex Brown, Victory Christian to a 55-52 victory against Lindsay Lane Christian Academy (Ala.) in the ACEAA Division I title game on Feb. 22 at the Oxford (Ala.) Civic Center.
"It was a team win, a team season," Victory Christian coach Chris Hamm said.
Miley, who was named the tournament's MVP, had a team-high 17 points, while Smith had 11, Brown had 10, and Alesha Taylor and Michaela Williams had six apiece. Brown had a team-high 19 rebounds, while Miley and Smith each had 12. Smith added three blocked shots, and Taylor had four steals.
"It wasn't expected because we lost seven seniors last year," Smith said. "We just did it with a lot of practice and all of us stepped up."
Smith didn't hesitate to single out the sub-state victory against New Life Christian as the moment it dawned on her and the team that another championship could be in their future. She said the team lost several games early in the season that damaged its confidence, but she said things picked up as the season progressed and as players improved and came together.
Smith is an ideal example. A year ago, she didn't score a lot of points on a team that went 22-0 and was led by Taylor Hairston and Alyka Hamm and went on to win a second-consecutive ACEAA title. But Smith, who is 6-foot-2, worked on her game in the offseason and attended a basketball camp at Mississippi State. After losing seven seniors, Smith knew her game would have improve if the team was going to keep its championship run intact.
"It was surprising because everyone thought we couldn't do it," Smith said.
Miley, a sophomore, started last season and moved to a wing position at the start of the 2013-14 season. Smith's injury forced her to move back to forward, but when she returned Miley was back to the wing, so she continued to work on her perimeter shooting. The practice paid off in the title game, as Victory Christian (19-6) hit six 3-pointers, according to Hamm, that helped open things up inside for the post players.
"So many people were like, 'Mmm, that's a young team. They're not going to win it. They will do pretty good, but they're going to be all right,' " Miley said. "We totally proved them wrong because we worked our hardest and pushed so hard."
In the semifinals, Brown led the team with 14 points in a 47-36 victory against Tuscaloosa Christian on Feb. 21. She also had 12 rebounds. Smith, who was named to the all-tournament team, had 13 points, 15 rebounds, and one blocked shot. Taylor added 10 points, four assists, and two steals, while Miley had eight points, seven assists, and 11 rebounds.
Other team members are: Hannah Jordan, Suzy Heaton, Brittany Williams, Kristin Hall, Kennedy Blunt, Emly Simmons, and Kayla Harrell.
With only one senior, Smith and Miley know the bull's eye on the team's back will be even bigger next season. Miley said the Lady Eagles can't let that be a distraction in their drive for four.
"A lot of the teams are coming after us because we have won it three years in a row," Miley said. "It would be awesome to win four. It would be great. We just have to keep working hard so we can."
Hamm would like to take the group to a team camp in the offseason to help it build chemistry. He feels the team continued to improve through losses to Starkville Christian and a close win against Tuscaloosa Christian to build its confidence and to know multiple players could contribute.
With so many of the players involved in other activities and sports (the cheerleading squad won the conference's team title and its spirit award the same day as the basketball title game), Hamm knows getting all of the girls together for a camp might be tough. But he is looking forward to having nearly all of the group back next year so the Lady Eagles can make a run at another title.
"We weren't presumptuous to say, 'Hey, we have got this. Three in a row? No problem, even though we are losing seven seniors,' " Hamm said. "We knew we had the components and it was a matter of coming together. Alesha played her best ball in the championship tournament at point guard. They couldn't press us and turn us over.' " Unexpected? Yes, but it wasn't one of those where people went, 'How did that happen?' You could see how it all came together. It is hard to say which you enjoy the most, but it was a very satisfying win."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.