Whale Branch High School celebrated its first senior class Wednesday, lining up the Warriors and their friends and family between games.
A lot has changed for the better for the girls since they first suited up for the inaugural season. The first-year team resembled its recreation ball roots, and coach Wilbert Bryant spent much of the season instilling discipline and fundamentals.
A new season brought much-needed components -- a capable ball-handler and depth in the post. And Whale Branch heads for uncharted territory, the school's first girls basketball playoff game. A 57-31 home victory Wednesday over Region 5-A foe Bamberg-Ehrhardt clinched the Warriors a No. 2 seed and home playoff game Monday. Whale Branch will host Charleston Math and Science in Seabrook.
Allendale-Fairfax defeated Estill on Wednesday to ensure the Warriors the second seed.
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"We're head and shoulders above where we were last year," Bryant said.
Bryant started his seniors until the Red Raiders scored the first five points. With the usual starters on the floor, Whale Branch ran off a 12-2 burst. By halftime, the Warriors led by 15.
"Our mind-set is to take it step by step," senior Deborah Fields said. "And try to work hard to make less mistakes on the court."
Fields was an original Warrior, anchoring the post last season while enduring the frustration of not having a true point guard to feed her the ball. Freshman Kemoni Jenkins filled the role this season. And fellow freshman Shaniqua Johnson provided depth in the post.
Sharrin Reed led the Warriors with 10 points off the bench Wednesday, showing off some of the depth Bryant thinks could be key in the playoffs. The Warriors believe they have a balanced group capable of a run.
With each victory, more history is made.
"Our mantra this year was 'One team, one goal,'" Bryant said. "Our initial goal was to win region. Now it's to advance in the playoffs."
Whale Branch girls 57, Bamberg-Ehrhardt 31
BAMBERG-EHRHARDT -- LaShaya Clark 11, Meyonda Murdough 9, Laikita Walker 7, Brittany Hughes 3
WHALE BRANCH (14-6, 11-3 Region 5-A) -- Sharrin Reed 10, S'Nitra Mack 9, Shaniqua Johnson 8, Deborah Fields 7, Kemoni Jenkins 7, Kenyada Moultrie 6, Shaquanna Green 4, Tasheka Wright 2, Brittany Pryor 2, Cynthia Rivers 2
Whale Branch boys 77, Bamberg-Ehrhardt 39
A chance to finish among the top two teams in a balanced region slipped away from the Whale Branch boys down the stretch this season, but the Warriors' spot in the Class 1-A playoffs is secure after Wednesday's victory.
And Friday they'll fight for the best position possible. Whale Branch coach Linc Lyles said his team will meet Ridgeland in a tiebreaker game at Allendale-Fairfax on Friday to determine the final two playoff spots out of Region 5-A. Winner earns the No. 3 seed. Loser is the fourth seed.
"They're going to want that third spot, and we're going to want that third spot," Lyles. "It's a neutral site. There's no excuses."
Lyles told his team to treat Wednesday like a playoff game, that the seniors honored should play as if it could be their final game. A variety of defensive looks, full-court pressure and traps rattled the Red Raiders. And the Warriors cruised.
Andre Watson led the Warriors with 16 points. Parish Magwood added 11. The pair represented two of the team's 10 seniors recognized Wednesday.
Lyles said the Warriors could be among the region's deeper teams, and that his team could be hosting a playoff game next week if not for a few stumbles on the way home. But the Warriors have already more than doubled last season's six-win mark. And the program's first playoff berth is guaranteed.
BAMBERG-EHRHARDT -- Kevin Crosby 10, Terrell Kinard 8, LeSamuel Davis 6, Will Priester 5, Austin Brown 3, Gustavus Schwarting 2, Justin Johnson 2, Alfonzo Crosby 2
WHALE BRANCH (15-7, 10-4 Region 5-A) -- Andre Watson 16, Parish Magwood 11, Tyshawn Fields 8, Eric Frazier 8, Dee Delaney 6, Leroy Perry 5, Josh Fields 5, Devonte Lykes 5, Jay Abney 4, Trey Polite 3, Terrell Hazel 2, Charles Jiles 2, Stedmon James 2