A ‘soap opera all season’ turns into a year for the records books

With every bounce of the ball and every made shot, it's history in the making for the South Walton Seahawks.

On Saturday night, the team defeated the defending state champions Ponce de Leon Pirates, 54-44, in the Girls Class 1A Basketball Regional Final. It earned the ladies a trip to Lakeland for the Final Four and the first-ever shot at a state title for any sport in the 10 years of the school’s existence.

The Seahawks left for the 7-hour bus ride to the state tournament Sunday afternoon.

"This means everything," said senior Seahawk guard Eve Heffron. "All the sweat and blood for four years and finally winning… We didn't let up.”

"And having their support means a lot," Heffron said of the pep band and student body who turned out en masse for Saturday's game and Sunday’s send-off.

South Walton Coach Kevin Craig went a step further, crediting the fan support as a big factor in the win.

"That home crowd, the student section and the band ... that got us over the edge," said South Walton Kevin Craig. "Ponce has a great team and they bring a great crowd. But our students really made the difference as far as extra energy goes."

Sitting in his office minutes after the victory, and surrounded by the many photos of past and current players, Coach Craig reminisced a moment.

"My first thoughts are Jenna Connley, Becky Suwak and Sam Jones that were here for the 0-25 season," said Craig, who is in his ninth year as head coach.

"Where we are now, to what they went through and they stuck with it. They didn't quit and they hung in there and they got this started and they believed in us," Craig added.

Following that 0-25 season, Craig led the Seahawks to a 12-14 finish his first year and then to the school’s first district title with a 24-6 record in 2006.

On Saturday, the Seahawks chalked up another first. With a 10-point win over Ponce de Leon they clinched a trip to the state tournament.

"This was just great for South Walton High School," Craig said. "I'm so happy for these kids because it's been a soap opera all season. It's just a bunch of sisters that have fought and scrapped with each other throughout the year. But when we get between the lines, it's the most unselfish team I've every coached. They don't care who scores; they just want to win."

And win they did Saturday night, despite falling behind early.

With less than three minutes to go in the first quarter, the Seahawks trailed 14-5. But in the last two minutes of the period, South Walton put up eight consecutive points with Destin's Katie Logan finishing the run with a long shot from the side to tie the game at 16-16.

Craig said he thought the girls might have been a little tight early on.

"We were trying to break the press by the book, the way I've been preaching to them," he said. "It wasn't working, so I finally said let's just go attack. And it just made them relax."

In the second quarter, the Seahawks outscored the Pirates 18 to nine for a 34-25 lead at the half.

Ponce de Leon managed to close it down to a two-point game in the third, but South Walton pulled away again in the last two-and-half minutes with two driving baskets from Heffron and a free throw by Tayler Menard for a 41-34 mark at the buzzer.

In the fourth, the Pirates again got it down to a two-point game with 1:35 left to play, but were forced to foul. The Seahawks went to the line five times hitting six of 10 tries. Kati Trejo put up the last basket for a 54-44 finish as Coach Craig threw his arms up in victory on the sidelines.

"Defense, free throws and rebounds" is what won it for us, said senior forward Menard. "Today we got to apply everything we've been working on. Fundamentals are what won it."

Even Craig couldn't single out one particular player.

"It was a total team effort," Craig said. "I know a lot of people say that, but it was."

All seven Seahawks that played put points on the board. Heffron led the way with 15, while Casey Perot checked in with 14 points. Trejo scored nine, Morgan Kennedy seven and Menard five. Logan and Mackenzie Perot each chipped in two.

"They refuse to lose," Craig said. "It's just an awesome feeling. I've been telling them for three years, that there's nothing like the feeling of knowing you are going to the Final Four ... there's nothing like it.

"We knew a year ago, we'd be playing this game on this night at home. We've talked about it, and the home court was the difference.

"It wasn't pretty at times, but as Mickey Englett said many years ago, 'winning ugly is the prettiest girl in town.' "