By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
BIRMINGHAM – Following Thursday’s Class 1A girls state championship game against Marion County, in which Spring Garden won 62-39, lone Lady Panther senior guard Kayley Kirk said, “It doesn’t feel real. It feels like I’m in a dream.”
It’s a feeling that a lot of the other Lady Panthers share, but for Kirk, it might have a little more meaning after struggling to recover from an ACL injury she suffered as a sophomore.
Flash forward to now. If Kirk had butterflies in her final game as a Lady Panther, she didn’t show them. In Thursday’s championship against Marion County, Kirk collected 14 points, including a four 3-pointers.
“When we came out on the court, our confidence was real high,” Kirk said. “We knew we couldn’t lose.”
Kirk’s confidence helped her earn a selection to the all-tournament team, a fitting end to a hard-fought career, head coach Ricky Austin said.
“It’s tear-shedding proud,” Austin said. “She loves this sport. When I get a hold of a girl who loves it like that, I want to use it.
“When she got hurt, she could’ve easily tapped out and let other girls pass her, but we weren’t going to let that happen. She’s so tough. Her toughness is so important to us. She doesn’t say a whole lot, but when she does, it has a lot of stick to it. To see her get this reward at the end of a career of a sport she loves, that’s why I coach.”
Her legacy won’t soon be forgotten.
There’s no doubt the Lady Panthers thrive off the talent of sophomore point guard Ace Austin’s phenomenal abilities, but they also feed of what Kirk has been through.
And she feeds off of them as well.
“All of my teammates feel like little sisters to me,” she said. “I look up to every single one of them, even though I’m older than them. I look up to every one of them. It’s a special group.”
Even though Spring Garden is returning all the remainder of the pieces from this year’s state title team, Austin said it will be tough losing Kirk, who finished her career scoring over 2,000 points.
But he’s not worried where she goes from here.
“She’s going to handle anything that life throws at her,” he said. “What she’s been through with us, whatever she wants to accomplish in life, the stage is set for her.”