First Baptist girls appear ready to make run at state title

First Baptist athletic director Graham Haley (Photo provided)

It has been 35 years since First Baptist won its only state championship in girls basketball, something this year’s team would like to change.

Graham Haley took over as head coach of the girls’ program four years ago. Haley, who had never coached females in any sport, inherited a program that won two games during the 2010-11 season. Prior to that the First Baptist alum spent three years working with the junior varsity boys’ team and assisting coach Jeff Whittle on two state championship teams.

“It was certainly a challenge to change the mentality of the girls that were in the program, but as a coach I really wanted that challenge,” said Haley. “I think we were fortunate at that time to get a good crop of young athletes coming through and I was able to build the foundation around them.”

Haley’s first season yielded 11 wins, followed by 13 victories in 2012-13. Last season, First Baptist posted 17 victories overall, winning six region games.

The group of young athletes that helped Haley begin to turn the program around four years ago are now seniors. Forward McKala Rhodes leads the team in scoring (14.3 ppg) and rebounding (11.7 rpg). Mary Alvanos and Emily Peters also start. All three were members of the school’s volleyball team that advanced to the state championship in October.

“They are very competitive athletes with a strong desire to win at whatever they do,” said Haley. “They started with me that first year and they stuck with it when some other girls decided not to.”

A pair of sophomores — Jonai Grant and Ashley Planter — have been key additions to the program. Grant is averaging 12.7 points and 3.9 assists per game as the team’s point guard while Planter is contributing 8.3 points per game.

“We were up and down early on but I really like the team chemistry right now,” said Haley. “We have several girls that come off the bench and contribute in a lot of ways. The big key has been our defense. The girls have really learned to love defense and we play really hard.”

Entering Thursday night’s game at Palmetto Christian, the Hurricanes were 13-5 overall and 5-0 in region play. Among those region victories was an upset win over area SCISA power Northwood Academy. Aside from the state championship win in 1980, the win over Northwood was the biggest in school history.

“I think it just showed our players that if we play to our potential, we can compete with anyone in the state,” said Haley. “We have so much respect for their program. To be able to compete with them and get a win was really special for these girls.”

First Baptist will have a rematch with Northwood on Feb. 13, the final game of the regular season. The playoffs will follow and Haley feels his team’s anticipation for the postseason growing.

“Our goal from day one has been winning a state championship,” said Haley. “I think we have a strong group and certainly this is our best chance in a long, long time. It’s really hard to win a state championship, but I think we’ve made ourselves a contender. We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”