Seahawks secure state title with an assist from fans
The South Walton Lady Seahawks got it done on the hardwood Wednesday evening and secured their place in history — but not without the support of their fans in the stands.
In a fourth quarter surge, the Seahawks beat the Chipley Tigers 58-49 at the Lakeland Center in Central Florida to bring home the Class 1A State Championship title, the first-ever for a team sport in the schools 10-year history.
With less than 10 seconds left on the clock, South Walton Coach Kevin Craig turned and saluted the students and fans that packed the stands behind the home bench.
"This is just so great for our school and our community," Craig said, pointing to the roughly 200 people who made the 400-plus mile trek to Lakeland.
The Lady Seahawks pulled out Sunday afternoon after earning the trip to the Final Four with a 54-44 win over defending state champions Ponce de Leon.
Others left Monday, to catch the semis on Tuesday with the Villages. The pep band, which supported the Seahawks all season, went down Monday and were there to cheer on the Hawks. South Walton whipped The Villages 54-30.
Knowing at that point that the Seahawks had a 50/50 chance of bringing home the state title, arrangements were made to take a pep bus. Students were told that the first 100 to show up would have a seat on the bus.
For students Jacob Parker and Wesley Miller, who call themselves "No. 1 fans," they weren't going to take any chances on missing that ride.
"We got here at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday," Parker said.
"We weren't going to get left," Miller added. "I bleed green and gray."
The two camped out in the parking lot and finally fell asleep in Miller's Bronco about 2:30 a.m., just to be awakened by buddy Matt Winkler at 3 a.m.
Others showed up at 4 a.m., such as Spencer Molenda and Rachel White. But when the clock struck 5 a.m., the scheduled time to leave, 36 loaded onto the bus along with four adults and this Log reporter — all headed to Lakeland.
The kids on the bus were pumped and couldn't wait to get there. They brought along war-paint and huge posters and cutout faces of some of the players to hold up during the game.
Elliott Lara even sported his T-shirt that reads "Property of Eve" on the front and then has her jersey number on the back "10." He says he has worn it to every game this season to support Eve Heffron, a senior on the team.
The pep band was outside the Lakeland Center warming up, as the pep bus arrived loaded with fans 9 hours after departure from Santa Rosa Beach.
Then it was time to paint up and get ready for war against the Chipley Tigers.
The Lady Seahawks took the floor and fell behind early to the Tigers, but kept them within reach trailing 12-7 at the end of the first quarter.
South Walton came out to start the second quarter, with Kati Trejo sinking a shot from the paint, but the Seahawks just couldn't seem to get any closer than 2 points of catching the Tigers, as they trailed 25-23 at the half.
Chipley struck first in the third quarter with Victoria Lovett nailing a 3-pointer. Morgan Kennedy scored for South Walton, then Chipley picked up another basket. Heffron was fouled and made both shots from the line, then Casey Perot hit an inside shot to get the Hawks within one-point of catching the Tigers.
But Chipley again made a little run putting up seven straight points. By the end of the period, South Walton had closed it down to a 39-35 game.
At the start of the fourth, the Seahawks went to work and put up nine consecutive points with buckets from sisters Casey and Mackenzie Perot and a driving shot to the basket by Heffron that she turned in for a three-point play and a 44-39 lead. From that point on, it was South Walton on top with Tayler Menard, Heffron, the Perot sisters and Morgan Kennedy putting up points.
The turnaround was at the half.
"I told them we needed to rebound better," Craig said. "We tried to do this and that, and finally I said let’s go back to what got us here, which is our trapping ... and just trap all over the place. We really got into it then."
And when they made their run in the fourth quarter, "that was just everybody making plays," he said.
"I thought Eve gave us a huge spark in that fourth quarter, along with Morgan and Tayler," Craig said. "You know our seniors really came through."
But Craig was quick to give credit to all his players.
"It's never just one or two guys. It's always everybody."
Even the players echoed the concept of team and togetherness.
"We stayed together the second half," said Casey Perot. "We got our little chewing out at halftime. But we had to do it for our seniors. We had to stay together this year for them. I think we just decided that we've got to stay positive and talk ... and stay together."
And stay together they did with Casey Perot scoring 13 points and pulling down seven rebounds. Mackenzie Perot scored 12 and had six rebounds, while Heffron scored 10 points and had five rebounds. Menard scored eight points, Trejo hit for six, Kennedy, five and Katie Logan four.
Top scorers for Chipley were Jasmine Belser and Rakeia Sorey with 14 each.
Moments after the final buzzer sounded, the players rushed the floor, and Coach Craig and Assistant Coach Chip High raised their arms in victory.
Many tears were shed, some for joy and others in sadness.
"This means a lot to me and the other three seniors ... Eve, Kati and Tayler," said Kennedy. "We've been with him for four years and that's hard as it is, and then trying to make it here was a big accomplishment.
"So we're really excited, but we're also sad it's over," Kennedy added.
For High, who coached at Choctawhatchee High for more than 20 years, and has been assisting Craig the last eight or nine, this was his first state title victory. Standing outside the center, High said he made it to the Final Four once, but didn't make it past the first round.
"This is my first," High said. He went on to say that what the girls have accomplished is phenomenal.
After hugging his girls, Craig said, "I've been here seven times (to the Final Four), I don't want to take away from any one of my teams, but this is very sweet."
Craig turned and thanked the pep band and before he left the Lakeland Center he stepped onto the fan bus to thank the students for making the journey.
South Walton High Assistant Principal Jonathan D'Avignon and administrator Jimmy Ross also came aboard the bus and thanked the students.
"Do you realize what you did?" D'Avignon asked. "I appreciate this ... it's all you guys. Let's make this the norm."
One of the students on the bus summed it all up — "This was the best field trip ever."