July 21, 2014 2:36:04 PM
PHEBA -- Holly Hudson remembers that sinking feeling she had two years ago when she played her first varsity basketball game.
"When (teammate) Rebekah (Falkner) and I started playing in eighth grade, it was rough," Hudson said. "We were going against girls way bigger than we were. As we got bigger, it's like we see other younger girls on other teams are scared of us. We have worked really hard to get to this point. We know how much has changed."
Falkner adds she was "scared out of her wits" before playing her first varsity game. However, Hudson and Faulkner have learned and grown together. As they have improved, so have the fortunes of the Heritage Christian School girls basketball program.
Hudson averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds, while Falkner averaged 12 points and eight assists this past season to help Hebron Christian (25-6) advance to the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Overall State tournament for the first time.
For the team's success, Hudson and Falkner are The Dispatch All-Area Small Schools Girls Basketball Players of the Year.
"When we started the season, a lot of people were optimistic," said Hudson, a 5-foot-10 forward. "At the same time, we were so young. We were also learning a new coach (Bruce Franks). He demanded a lot from us. It took a while to adjust to that. Once we got everybody working together, we became a dangerous team."
Hebron Christian only had two seniors -- Subrina Oswalt and Alaina Hill -- in the starting lineup. Hill returned to the school after one season at East Webster High School. The seniors joined sophomore Victoria Ferguson and freshmen Hudson and Falkner in the starting lineup.
"We were young, and we really had to learn some things about teamwork," said Falkner, a 5-foot-4 point guard. "We had to push one another. You have to be able to tell your teammates what they can and can't do. You have to be able to fight some days but get along on other days. When the season started, we really didn't believe in one another. Fortunately, coach Franks did. He really pushed us in the right direction."
Early success was critical as the team quickly found Franks had the correct game plan. It also allowed the younger players to build confidence and to work with and to trust one another.
"This was a whole new team," Hudson said. "We had to learn how to build each other up instead of tearing one another down. We had to become a family. Now we are tight like that. We always are over at each other's houses. If we have differences one day, we put them aside when we get between the lines and we work as hard as we possibly can at practice."
Franks felt his first Hebron Christian boys and girls basketball teams could turn the corner. For the Lady Eagles, he found a team "raw with talent" and "green in several areas." The first guideline was simple. The team was going to work harder than ever.
"With Holly and Rebekah, there is not an eyelash of difference between (them)," Franks said. "They have a great understanding of what we are trying to do. We are talking (about) freshman players who are going against some of the biggest, best teams in the state and not backing down from the challenge. The sky is the limit as far as the potential of this team and those two players."
Hudson and Falkner realized the sacrifice the Lady Eagles needed to make. Coming from basketball families, they were ready for the challenge.
"We practice a lot," Hudson said. "Coach is very demanding, but we know he knows what is best. He pushed a lot in practice. Once we got the hang of practice and we stared becoming better teammates, things got a lot better."
Following her sister
Falkner is following in the footsteps of sister Katelyn Falkner Pierce, who played on Hebron Christian's district championship teams in 2005-06 and 2006-07. She also credits parents Martin and Valeria Falkner and grandfather Flip McGee for being big influences on her basketball career.
"My sister is my biggest fan," Falkner said. "She tells me all the time to play every game like it's your last because you are going to miss it so much when you are through playing. Her name is on two of the banners that hang on the wall in the gym, so it's a big deal to try to outdo her accomplishments."
Hudson also has lots of basketball players in her family, including mother Talitha Hudson, aunt Patti Watkins, and twin sister Millie, who also is on the team. Grandparents Henry and Jo Bullard also are credited as being big influences.
"My family has always played basketball," Hudson said. "My aunt was really good, and my mom also played. It is in my blood. When you come from a group of players like that, your expectations are very high."
Long coaching career
Franks coached for 28 years at Houston High before retiring. He arrived in Pheba with high expectations. Hebron Christian tasted those expectations last season when it defeated Carroll Academy in the third-place game of the MAIS North State tournament to reach the MAIS Overall State tournament.
"I think the girls now know what it takes to reach that next level," Franks said. "We played in some really big games at the end of the year. There is no doubt that experience will pay off big time for players, such as Holly and Rebekah. They know the hard work needed to beat the elite teams."
The victory against Carroll Academy came less than a week after losing to the Lady Rebels in the district tournament championship game.
"Carroll was so big," Falkner said. "I think we were really freaked out the first time we played them. When we came back the same time, we talked about relaxing and just playing our game. We really didn't have anything to lose, so we played calm, under control, and were not intimated. That was the sweetest win I have been a part of in all of my years of playing sports.
"We hope that is just the beginning. We want our names on a banner, and we want a state championship ring. We got a pretty good idea now of what it takes to get there."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter