Class 1A Private blog: Holy Innocents’ girls ready for tough stretch

No. 1 Lady Bears aiming for 3rd title in 4 seasons

The Holy Innocents’ Golden Bears are gearing up for what coach Nichole Dixon refers to as the season’s third quarter — region play. Whichever team wins Region 5 will be a favorite to win state. The region is easily the deepest in 1A Private, with four ranked teams — No. 1 Holy Innocents’, No. 4 Hebron Christian, No. 5 Galloway and No. 7 Wesleyan.

The Golden Bears (13-2) are also the No. 1 overall team in the state according to the MaxPreps computer rankings.

The good news for the Golden Bears is Dixon believes they’re ready for the third-quarter stretch based on how they’ve grown over the season’s first two quarters. Their readiness hasn’t always been present at this point in seasons’ past.

“We’ve really been emphasizing the third quarter because, historically, we’ve come out slow,” said Dixon, in her sixth season leading the Golden Bears. “Our kids have gravitated toward the third quarter and are ready to attack it from the beginning. Now’s the time to do it because this region matters, and where we finish (in the region standings) matters. We’re taking all opponents seriously and we’re going to prepare and try to be the best we can be. If we play our brand of basketball, that’s all we can ask for.”

For Round 1 of this year’s playoffs, Region 5 lines up with Region 7, which features No. 2 Mount Paran and No. 8 Darlington. Winning Region 5 is the Golden Bears’ best chance at an easier path to the championship, which they’d won in consecutive seasons before losing last year in the semis as a No. 2 seed.

Dixon considers November as the season’s first quarter, and the goal is to get the team in rhythm defensively. The Golden Bears play up-tempo man-to-man defense designed to create opportunities on the offensive end. It’s a style that can be taxing and requires a full team effort.

“We truly believe (team) trust starts on the defensive end,” Dixon said. “Taking charges, helping the helper, crashing the boards for your teammates — including our guards. That effort spills over to the offensive end, which leads to sharing the ball more. If they have each other’s back on the defensive end, they’re going to trust each other more on the offensive end.”

The second quarter consists of holiday tournaments and the toughest competition the Golden Bears can find. They’re 8-2 against ranked teams from higher classifications, beating 7A’s No. 2 Grayson (twice), No. 5 West Forsyth, No. 6 Woodstock and No. 7 Brookwood, 6A’s No. 1 Kell and No. 2 Buford and Florida’s Pine Forest, ranked No. 7 in 5A.

Their only losses were to Tennessee’s Ensworth, ranked No. 1 in 2A, and Brookwood in a rematch, though for that game they were missing leading scorer, sophomore guard Brooke Suttle.

Though the third quarter netted two losses, Dixon said the goal was never perfection.

“We emphasize getting 1 percent better every day, as a teammate, on the court, individually and as a team,” she said. “I’m most impressed with that and them buying into being the best teammates they can be...Everyone is a piece to the puzzle.”

Dixon said she saw the players bring that philosophy to life following a difficult three-game stretch in December, when they beat Buford and Brookwood back-to-back, then lost their first game of the season to Ensworth in Nashville.

“Ensworth reminded us that we have to play as a team and continue to grow mentally,” she said. “We were tired, being on the road and traveling to Tennessee, and I think over the next couple of weeks we got mentally tougher...We’re excited about where we are.”

The Golden Bears are still almost two weeks away from the start of region play. Their next game is Saturday against 5A’s No. 2 Forest Park (9-1) in the Martin Luther King Classic at Chapel Hill. On Monday, they’ll host 4A’s No. 3 Luella (13-2), and they’ll play their final non-region game Jan. 22 at 3A’s No. 4 GAC (8-4).

Region 5 play begins Jan. 25 at home against Atlanta International (7-3). Despite a brutal non-region schedule, Dixon said 5-1A Private might be the Golden Bears’ toughest challenge yet.

“In my opinion, Region 5 is the toughest girls basketball region in the entire state, regardless of classification,” said Dixon, mentioning the region’s other three ranked teams, as well as a young, up-and-coming Mount Vernon. “This year, we have to be prepared more than ever for region play. It’s going to be really fun.”

After region comes the fourth quarter, which is the postseason. Dixon believes this team can return the championship trophy to Holy Innocents’ as long as the team continues to grow.

“I’m excited about the work ethic and the way this team has bought,” she said. “If we continue to do what we’ve shown we want to do, I think we can go as far as state. We’re still taking it day-by-day, game-by-game, minute-by-minute. After Kell (their last opponent, whom the Golden Bears beat 51-43 on Jan. 8), we moved from being a team to being a family, and I don’t say that lightly. We have a lot more basketball to play. We’re not even in the third quarter, which is region. If we stay healthy and continue to grow, we have the right pieces in place.”