Class 1A Private blog: For 2nd straight year, mother-daughter combo seeks program’s 1st title

Hebron Christian’s Jan, Nicole Azar won in 2021; Mount Paran’s Stephanie, Kara Dunn can match feat

The Mount Paran Eagles are a win away from the first state title in program history, and if they can beat the Hebron Christian Lions in the 1A Private championship, 11 a.m. Saturday at the Macon Coliseum, they will have done so with coach Stephanie Dunn and her daughter, senior Kara Dunn, leading the way.

While that feat is rare, the No. 4 Lions (26-5) accomplished it last year when they won their first title in program history, beating St. Francis 51-46 with coach Jan Azar and daughter Nicole Azar.

Nicole Azar was a senior then, and now she’s playing at Samford. Kara is one of the top players in the country, a 4-star and No. 61 overall player for the class of 2022, according to ESPN. She signed with Georgia Tech in November.

Win or lose, Stephanie is grateful for the experience of coaching her daughter in a championship after leading St. Pius to three Class 4A titles in four seasons (2004, 2006, 2007) while Kara was a small child.

“It’s very special,” said Stephanie. “I’ve been coaching for all of Kara’s life, and she’s been in the gym with me her entire life. So, for us to be on the court together, and for me to pour myself into her the way I have other kids has been extremely special for me and for her dad. Knowing that it was her dream, her goal, her commitment to lead her team to the state championship, and for us to do it together — it’s just very special.”

Hebron Christian’s 1A Private title last year was Jan’s 14th overall after she won 13 in 16 years at Wesleyan from 2002-2018. Two of those titles came while coaching Nicole, with the first coming in 2018.

“It was amazing,” Jan said. “Winning a championship is always special, but getting to play in that last game of the season with your child on the court is really special. For Nicole, it was a little bit different because she grew up watching so many girls do this before her. So for her to get to a championship was special for us.

“I’m happy for Stephanie that she gets to do that, but we’re trying to stop her from finishing the way we did last year.”

Credit: Photos courtesy of Stephanie Dunn, David Azar

Credit: Photos courtesy of Stephanie Dunn, David Azar

Already in the playoffs, the Lions and Eagles have each proven they’re capable of winning Saturday. Both had wins over top-three opponents in the playoffs, and the most impressive came from the Eagles, who beat top-ranked Holy Innocents’ 53-50 in the semifinals.

The Bears were No. 1 overall in the state, regardless of classification, but the Lions prevailed behind freshman Jessica Fields’ 18 points and Kara’s 14. Another freshman, Jada Harvey, calmly sank two free throws with 26 seconds remaining to bring the score to its final margin.

“I felt like we were prepared because we played every tough team we could find — we even played in Florida — just for preparation,” Stephanie said. “I definitely felt like we had the opportunity to win.”

Of the Eagles’ non-region opponents, Norcross (7A) and Florida’s Cardinal Mooney (3A) also reached their classification’s championship games.

The Lions had their hands full in the quarterfinals at No. 3 St. Francis, but escaped with a 53-51 win. In the semifinals, they topped No. 5 Galloway 49-47. It was the fight in the Lions to win those close games that has Azar confident in them despite their relative inexperience.

“We graduated nine seniors last year,” Azar said. “We have no juniors and three seniors. The rest are freshman and sophomores. Going into the season, we wanted to put our players in situations where we were in close games, because we knew that was going to happen later. We lost earlier in the season with mental mistakes, but our girls are always working hard to try to do what we ask. They don’t always do it, but they’re learning as they go.”

One learning moment came in a 59-58 loss to 7A’s Marietta on Dec. 9. In the game’s waning moments, a wide-open shot was passed up in favor of a kick-out pass to a teammate, and that decision cost the Lions the game. Against Galloway in the semis, the same player had the confidence to shoot late.

When it comes to the matchup, both Azar and Dunn know a battle is ahead.

“They’re going to be well-coached,” Dunn said. “They have very good shooters, and we’ll have to make sure we’re paying close attention to the shots they’re getting. They’re a good program that’s been there before and they understand what it takes. They’ll definitely be prepared. This is our first time, so I’m hoping we show up.”

Said Azar, “Kara is a special player and a great kid who you love to see doing well. She handles herself the right way on and off the court. But it’s not just Kara. Jessica Fields is arguably one of the best freshman in the state. Katelyn Dunning is going to West Georgia, and she’s a very talented point guard. Kaylynn Kirklen is another good guard. They’ve got four seniors in their starting lineup. They have experience, but we’re confident in what we bring to the table.

“I think it’s going to be a fun day.”