Mount Paran girls aim for 3-peat

2-time state defending champion Eagles return all players from last season’s senior-less team

The Mount Paran Eagles are ranked No. 1 and in the thick of their Region 6-2A schedule, where they’re 6-0. They’re 13-2 overall, and so far their aspirations of a three-peat are within grasp.

On Tuesday, the Eagles will play a North Cobb Christian (10-6, 6-1) school whose other region loss came on Nov. 28, when Mount Paran beat them 81-16. The rest of Region 6 has faired no better against the Eagles, who have outscored 6-2A opponents a combined 354-82 in six games.

Though this fast start is what every team wants, it’s come to be expected under Eagles coach Stephanie Dunn, in her seventh season at Mount Paran. She’s delivered the program its only championships in each of the last two seasons, and last year they won with out a senior on the team.

All that championship experience is back this season.

“It’s a luxury to have the entire team back from the year before after being as successful as we were,” said Dunn, who also won three titles with St. Pius X in the mid-2000s. “Losing five seniors (from the 2022 championship team) the year before, and with the sophomores who replaced them not getting much playing time, I didn’t know what to expect. I felt they’d do good because they’ve been in the program and practicing with us since middle school, which goes a long way. I felt like they were ready, and they proved to be last year. We play a tough schedule, against teams from other states — highly-ranked teams — and we put them up against the very best every year, and they were ready.

“That preparation through middle school and the summers had them experienced, so now that they’ve all come back this year, they’re focused on the details and the fundamentals of the game.”

Leading the charge on the court for the Eagles are two of the best players in 2A, wings Ciara Alexander, who averages 17.5 points and 8.5 rebounds, and Jessica Fields (14 points, 10 rebounds), who is closing in on 1,000 points for her prep career. They are complemented by junior Kitali Youmans, who averages a team-high four assists with a pair of steals, and Jacalyn Myrthil (eight points, two steals).

The Eagle have two sharpshooters in Isabella Ramirez (six points) and Kailer Brothers (3.5 points). Jada Harvey (four rebounds) comes off the bench as a rebounder and versatile defensive specialist.

All are juniors except Alexander, who is a senior.

“It’s going to be a sad day when they all graduate together,” Dunn said of the Class of 2025.

Though the Eagles’ region schedule hasn’t been competitive, their non-region schedule was packed with top competition and close games. In their second game of the season, they led 7A’s top-ranked Grayson most of the game before losing to them 55-52 in overtime. In a Jacksonville, Fla., holiday tournament, they beat Florida’s 4A No. 2 Palm Bay 48-44 on Nov. 20, then 6A’s No. 2 Blanch Ely 68-41 on Nov. 21.

They beat Rabun Gap, ranked No. 3 in the NCISAA, 52-48 on Nov. 25. They handed 6A’s No. 4 Marist a 38-31 loss Dec. 21, and the next day they beat No. 5 Central 46-28 in a cross-classification game.

On Dec. 29, they suffered their only other loss, 49-41, to Alabama 6A’s No. 1 Hazel Green.

“Against Grayson, our juniors hadn’t really gotten into their junior season yet, so they were still making mistakes that, prayerfully, we’re not making now,” Dunn said. “We left from Grayson the next day to play in Jacksonville, and those teams are always strong, so that was two really good wins. With Rabun Gap, we learned a lot about our defense and the things we need to work on, because they were real good at understanding movement, making decisions, scoring off the dribble and spacing. They forced us to work on things, like rotating on backside defense.

“With Central, we wanted to be the aggressor on both ends of the court, because we knew this was a team we could play again (in the state tournament).”

Though no one is expecting a Region 6 team to beat Mount Paran this season, the Eagles still challenge themselves in those games.

“For example,” explained Dunn, “We play at (Alabama 7A No. 2) Hoover on Saturday, so if we want to install some wrinkles for that game, we will work on them through region play to sharpen ourselves. We can take a look to see if we’re really understanding the concepts we’re working on.”

It’s that formula that has proven successful for Dunn, and she’s hoping it’s again successful this season. That would mean a new feat for her already storied career: three consecutive state titles. More importantly to her, another title would give the foundational players from the Classes of 2024-25 an incredible accomplishment.

“Three in a row would be something new for my career,” said Dunn, who has won consecutive titles at St. Pius and Mount Paran. “For these young ladies who have committed to our school and our program since middle school, when I was first coming in as coach, for them to buy in and lay the foundation with the seniors who are now in college, this is theirs. They built this. For them to be able to walk away with something as rare as three in a row, that would be special and something they could take with them the rest of their lives, with the life lessons as far as the work it takes, and the discipline.

“It’s easy to work hard and have goals, but to stay hungry and fighting when you’ve been successful is different.”