Class 1A Private blog: Mount Paran girls seek breakthrough

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Eagles’ quest for 1st title last chance for Dunn mother-daughter combo

Since taking over Mount Paran ahead of the 2017-18 season, coach Stephanie Dunn has guided the Eagles to the playoffs every year, reaching as far as the quarterfinals twice. A big reason for the team’s success the past four seasons has been Dunn’s daughter, Kara Dunn.

Kara, a 5-foot-11 guard, is a 4-star recruit ranked No. 61 overall in ESPN’s national recruiting rankings. She signed with Georgia Tech in November, which means this will be the senior’s last chance to win a state title.

By signing with the Yellow Jackets, Kara created a family rivalry. Stephanie, a class of 1991 standout from Stephens County, played for Georgia in the 1990s. Stephanie said her former teammates are already giving her the business, and during Georgia Tech’s recruitment of Kara, she did something she never imagined.

“The Georgia Tech staff had a lot of fun during Kara’s visit trying to get me to put on a Georgia Tech jacket and take a picture,” Stephanie said. “Kara kind of made me feel guilty for not doing it so eventually I put it on, but I made them promise not to take a picture. Then I put the shirt on for signing day. I am a Bulldog, but she is my child and I will support her 100%.”

This will be the final season Stephanie coaches her daughter, so she made sure the Eagles’ schedule best prepared them for a playoff run. The goal is to blend the team’s experienced contributors with its young playmakers.

“We came in knowing we had one of the toughest schedules in the state and that was by design,” Stephanie said. “We depend on our group of capable seniors playing at a high level, because that’s what they’ve done the past few years. We have a talented freshman group as well. We were optimistic knowing it would be a challenge, and a lot of games came down to the last second, which was perfect. That gave us the experience that we needed for our freshman and seniors, to let them know they’re one of the best teams in the state. We got confirmation we could play with anyone.”

The Eagles, ranked No. 2 in 1A Private, are 14-4 and 5-0 in Region 7 following their 66-37 region win over Darlington. They’re beating Region 7 competition by an average of 39 points, including a 70-9 win over Christian Heritage on Jan. 14.

Their non-region schedule highlights include wins over 7A’s No. 2 Grayson and No. 6 Cherokee, and 4A’s No. 2 Luella, which was No. 1 at the time the Eagles played them. They also beat Cardinal Mooney, which, according to MaxPreps, is the No. 1 team in Florida’s Class 3A.

Kara, with averages of 22 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.2 blocks, is the Eagles’ unquestioned leader. It’s not just her, however. Katelyn Dunning (eight points, five assists) is a four-year starter and West Georgia signee who runs point and “knows the offense backward and forward,” Stephanie said. Shamaria Jennings is the team’s defensive stopper and is being recruited by Reinhardt and others. Kaylynn Kirklen provides grit and physicality, along with great passing vision. All are seniors.

Then, there’s the freshmen, led by Jessica Fields, a 6-foot-1 forward averaging 10 points and 12 rebounds.

“Her upside is incredible,” Stephanie said. “She is, no doubt, one of the top players in the state.”

Other freshmen include guard Jacalyn Myrthil, who played her way into the starting lineup, and Kitali Youmans, who plays meaningful minutes as Dunning’s backup.

“We have five freshman and they’ve pretty much been in our system through middle school,” Stephanie said. “So, it was an incredible opportunity for them to practice with us as middle schoolers. That paid off this season with they way they seamlessly blended with our offense and defense. And they play a lot — AAU, training, and so on. You can count on them for veteran-type minutes and they play good at all five positions.”

Stephanie said the turning point of the season came Jan. 8, when the Eagles beat Luella 62-56 in a holiday tournament.

“They were No. 1 and very experienced,” Stephanie said. “They hadn’t lost a game at that point. And with it being a holiday tournament, colleges are there, AAU coaches are there, and it was a big stage where the players clearly felt pressure to do well in front of people. I don’t care about those things, but I care about going against a veteran team that hadn’t lost. We came together in that game, and you could see a lightbulb going off from what we’ve been teaching and preaching. They started to do it. That was the game when the seniors looked at the freshmen and said, ‘They got this.’”

The Eagles have three region games remaining and, in their season finale, a non-region contest against a Tallulah Falls team they beat 71-37 in their season opener. Stephanie said she wants the team to work on continuing to build continuity among the seniors and freshmen, creating shots off the dribble, identifying mismatches and play to the strengths of individual players.

Hopefully for Mount Paran, that leads to the first title in program history, which dates to 1976.

“Going into the postseason, I feel like we have the pieces,” Stephanie said. “We know how to win and our expectation is to finish stronger than before.”