Shaw column: History-making Hornets

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 12, 2011

CHAPEL HILL — The argument, if there even was one, is over.
Open the record books and give the Salisbury girls basketball team a line all to itself. The Hornets belong to history now.
Never before had a 2A girls squad captured three straight state titles. Never had a rookie coach, a 15-year old phenom and a stable of seniors as reliable as Die Hards in winter swept through the postseason with such mechanical precision.
Never before Saturday, anyway.
“We came here for a purpose,” guard Ashia Holmes chirped at the hallowed Dean E. Smith Center, where the Hornets placed their signature on another masterpiece of a season. “We didn’t come all this way just to put our hopes down. We came to win.”
They did, in lopsided fashion, over an East Bladen team that never saw it coming. The Eagles had thoroughly readied themselves for this test — their fourth state final in five years — and believed they were well-equipped to dethrone Salisbury, to gavel its undisputed reign to a close. Failing to prepare, the late John Wooden told us, is the same as preparing to fail. And hard-luck East coach Patty Evers had done her homework — analyzing the matchups, scrutinizing the numbers and turning herself upside-down in a comprehensive search for rightside-up — and a way to outscore Salisbury.
“Yeah, but they were just better than us,” she conceded after Salisbury’s 76-44 wipeout. “They were better than they were last year.”

Perhaps no one could. First-year coach Chris McNeil assembled a team that wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer, a team that that played with a casual insouciance, like the kid who already knows what he’s getting for his birthday. They routinely crushed lesser opponents, then shrugged it off like they’d just gone to the dentist for a cleaning. Rarely, if ever, did they publically sip from the fountain of pure emotion.
“We’re a very mature team,” explained forward Olivia Rankin, one of Salibury’s senior anchors. “We love the game. We know how to go about our business. And we’ll do anything to win.”
That they did — for the 27th consecutive time and 56th in its last 57 games. Four Hornets scorers reached double figures. Ayanna Holmes did the dishes, contributing 11 assists in her final game. Jessica Heilig was a force in the paint, bumping and bruising her way for 16 points and nine rebounds. And Rankin provided another honey of a stat from the Hornets’ beehive, quietly shooting 5-for-8 from the floor and netting 14 points.

But nobody’s star shone more luminously than freshman Brielle Blaire’s. With 20 points in 21 care-free minutes — and the game’s MVP plaque — her stock continued its mercurial ascent, seemingly rising faster than gasoline prices. Consider that she began the season as a hopeful walk-on and ends it walking on air.
“I just love my teammates,” the 6-foot-3 forward offered in typical freshman-speak. “I’m so blessed to be part of a team like this.”
Blaire scored 10 of her points before the game was four minutes old, helping Salisbury lurch to a 12-3 lead. For all intents and purposes East was cooked after two quarters in Salisbury’s oven. By the closing minutes McNeil had next year’s model on the floor and a coast-to-coast smile on his face. Finally — and once again — SHS owned the house, the Eagles and the championship.

When a remarkable season had run its course, Ashia Holmes broke character and initiated an impromptu dance near the Salisbury bench. Meanwhile principal Windsor Eagle led of a chorus of “Three in a row — Way to Go!” to the Salisbury faithful.
Clearly, this was a team that played with grand goals and accomplished them in small ways. A team that soared above the competition while keeping its feet firmly planted on the ground. A team who’s reach, while extensive, never exceeded its grasp.
“We had a wonderful team,” said the doe-eyed Rankin. “One that I trusted, loved and cared about.”
It was Heilig who penned the final lyric when she was asked what she’ll most fondly remember about the 2010-11 season: “That we did something special,” she answered. Something a lot of female basketball players won’t be able to do. Ever.”
And that’s pretty special.