|The High Road: Saltillo seniors' perseverance pays off with playoff berth|
|Bobby "Butch" Burney | News-Telegram Sports Editor|
Feb. 10, 2005 - SALTILLO - Cassie Hailey and Kassie Tully aren't gloating about the Saltillo Lady Lions' ride to the playoffs and state ranking this year, but they'd be forgiven if they did.
In junior high, they wondered when they would win a game.
Now seniors at Saltillo, Hailey and Tully are the only two remaining players from those rough junior high years. Along with fellow senior and Mount Vernon transfer Jenny Prather, they make up three-fifths of the starting lineup for coach Gary Davison's Lady Lions, who sport a 25-4 record a No. 20 ranking in the latest state poll.
Things didn't look so rosy for them four years ago.
"It was really hard because nobody believed in us. We were horrible and could never work together," said Tully, nicknamed "Jack" by her grandfather. "There's a big difference now. We work together and have discipline. We've never been this good since my freshman year.
"To have people want to come to our games and want to see us play is awesome."
Davison said in junior high, the girls didn't win a game and lost several by 50 points.
"I've been really proud of this group of kids," Davison explained. "For the two seniors who were here at the time, which was Kassie and Cassie, to not get discouraged, not give it up, keep fighting, and then to have a year like they've had this year, it says a lot about their character.
"That's what I'm most proud of - how they fought, how they never gave up, kept believing and kept getting better. They've become very good leaders."
He said they've also become good basketball players. The talents of the three seniors blends well with that of a skilled younger group to provide the Lady Lions with a blend of scoring to go with their usual recipe of tough defense.
In their 10 District 20-A, Div. II games, Saltillo outscored their opponents an average of 45-27.
Hailey, a post player though she's only 5-5, is the toughest player on the team and an admitted mother hen. Tully runs the point and has the "best step back move" Davison has seen from a high school girl. Prather, at 5-10, gives the team some height to go along with scoring and rebounding.
"We've got girls who can score a little bit. The last few years, we had trouble scoring," Davison said. "We could play good defense and keep games close, but we had trouble scoring enough to win. To help these seniors out, we've got some younger girls who can score. They've done a very good job of leading them and pointing them in the right direction."
That direction is the playoffs. Saltillo ended the district season with a 9-1 record, the same as Avinger, and the two teams will play for the district championship at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Hart's Bluff.
"It feels really good to win," said Hailey, the granddaughter of Dorotha Davis and an aspiring air traffic controller. "We're loving it, but you can't get a big head because if you do, you'll just go down the drain. We know we have to play hard, strong defense because that's the backbone of our team."
Davison said Hailey's attitude helps carry the team.
"The biggest thing about her is that she's so tough. She's not going to be intimidated," he said. "She doesn't concede. She's probably our toughest competitor."
They will need that attitude when they start the playoffs next week, probably on Tuesday. Last year, the two teams who came out of the district (Sulphur Bluff and Bloomburg) both advanced to at least the state quarterfinals.
Davison said he will depend on his three seniors to help steady the emotions of the team when they enter the playoffs.
"Kassie Tully handles pressure real well, which is great for a ball-handler," he explained. "She doesn't get too tense or too nervous."
Tully, the daughter of Linda May and Danny Tully, said it helps that the team is like a family to her.
"When we were younger, we would get mad and give up. Now, we get mad and lift each other up and play harder," she said. "We're more like a family now."
Prather, the daughter of Ronald and Diana Prather, saw that from a distance. She attended Mount Vernon schools until her sophomore year, when she transferred to Saltillo. She had to sit out of athletics for a year, but has been a varsity letterman each of the last two seasons.
"It looked like they had so much fun playing, and they were pretty good," she said of the team. "I knew some of the people over here, so my first day at school, I fit right in."
Prather is also a very successful golfer, and like her two senior teammates is very involved in school activities.
"They're good leaders," Davison said. "The younger girls look up to them."