The Thomas Heyward Academy girls basketball team felt the support when players entered the locker room before practice Wednesday.
Cupcakes and good luck cards greeted the Rebels, who travel to Sumter Civic Center today to play Colleton Prep in a SCISAA Class 2-A semifinal. The team's success has fueled the outpouring from the school and its fans. Thomas Heyward students will be released at 11:30 a.m. today to bolster the crowd in time for tipoff.
After coming up just short of a state championship a season ago, everyone at Thomas Heyward wants to see the Rebels succeed. Today is the next step.
"I think we have unfinished business, to win the state championship," junior guard Taylor Ernestine said. "I think we're really determined to get it this year and not lose out."
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Thomas Heyward (25-0) and Richard Winn Academy, both undefeated, are expected to meet in Saturday's state final. But first the Rebels will have to brush away a familiar opponent.
The Rebels have played and defeated Colleton Prep five times the past two seasons. The most recent meeting, in December, ended in a six-point Rebels victory -- closer than coach Gary Mazzanna might have liked.
And so the Thomas Heyward girls are wary as they try to reach the state final for a second consecutive season.
"We never look past one game," senior Kayla Canavan said. "But in the back of our mind, our goal has been to get to state and win."
The number of recent contests between Colleton Prep and Thomas Heyward have allowed each to become familiar with the other's style of play. And they're similar. Both teams like to play an up-tempo style and pressure the ball, Mazzanna said.
The Rebels defeated the War Hawks 57-21 to open the season, but faced a tougher test during the rematch. Defense has propelled the Rebels, Ernestine said, and will have to again today.
"If we come out and play the way we're capable of playing, we should be able to take care of business," Mazzanna said. "But they've got the capabilities to beat us. There's no doubt about that."
Mazzanna said guard Brielle Jungblut, who has battled illness this week, would be evaluated Wednesday as to how much she might play. The Rebels are otherwise healthy. He said the Rebels have improved with each of their playoff victories.
"Hopefully we'll play better tomorrow night," he said. "Then if we get by that, we'll just put it all together (Saturday)."