By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
SPRING GARDEN – Shortly after Spring Garden’s latest girls basketball state championship celebration on Friday morning, junior forward Chloe Rule told head coach Ricky Austin they had a little something for him.
It was a can of Mountain Dew.
It’s been a tradition for the Lady Panthers to eat at IHOP during the morning of the state championship game, and it’s tradition for Austin to drink a Mountain Dew to get him prepared.
“That’s been working well for us,” he said. “They’ve got great Mountain Dew there. That’s usually how I start the day off. I always make a big deal about I can’t wait to be drinking that Mountain Dew on state championship morning. I throw that out at them during the season. It’s kind of a reminder of that, and that’s kind of the reward part of it.”
When asked how Friday’s canned Mountain Dew tasted following Friday’s state championship celebration, Austin said “This thing is great.”
“It’s become a celebrating drink for me,” he said. “To have it delivered by a player makes it that more special.”
Austin was able to have the rare carbonated refreshment thanks to the Lady Panthers’ 62-39 victory over Marion County back on March 2 in Birmingham, capping a 36-1 season. It was the first championship celebration the Lady Panthers have been able to have since 2018. Their 2020 championship celebration never came to pass because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Austin, who’s coached the Lady Panthers in seven of their eight state championship seasons, said these type of celebrations never get old. They’re each unique in their own way.
“I had a former player mention to me, Hannah Hutcheson, these games mark you for life. It can be both ways, win or lose, but it kind of marks you. That’s what we see here today. It’s marking these kids.
“They make fun of me when I tell them throughout the season that somebody can steal your money. They can steal your car. They can take your boyfriend away from you, but you can put on your tombstone state champion once you’re a state champion. Nobody can take that away from you.”
This year’s championship celebration was particularly special for senior guard Kayley Kirk. Kirk is the Lady Panthers’ lone senior, and she’s battled through an ACL injury.
“The feeling of winning a state championship still doesn’t feel real at times, but I think today it really set in,” Kirk said. “I appreciate our school for putting this together. It’s awesome. We loved it all.”
Kirk was referring to the player introductions one final time from Lady Panther public address announcer Brian Jennings, the state championship highlight video compiled by Kevin Ward with photos by team photographer Leah Maddox, the formal presentation of the state championship trophy from Alabama High School Athletic Association Executive Director Alvin Briggs, capped off with her and Austin unveiling the latest championship banner.
It was also a special moment for two of the newest Lady Panthers to the program, junior guard Libby Brown and junior center Rule. Brown transferred in from Trion, Ga., two years ago. Rule came to the Lady Panthers from Hokes Bluff this season.
“Coming here and being a big contributor feels crazy,” Brown said. “Last year we didn’t make it to state. We didn’t make it past regionals, but just to be part of it then, it was special to me because Trion never made it past the Sweet 16. It was really special to win state this year. As soon as the state championship game was over, I was like I’m ready to do it again.”
Rule said she’s “never accomplished anything this big in my life.”
“I’d always come close to things, but nothing ever to this standard,” Rule said. “I wouldn’t want to have done this with anyone else really. These people have really opened their arms and let me in and they don’t let go.
“When I first got here I was really nervous. I knew it was going to be a completely different experience and I was correct. The work ethic here is something they pride themselves on. You can tell it. I think the thing that makes it so obvious is the fact that our games are usually easier than the practices. They push us to our full extent.”
It was also a special day for role players like sophomore forward/center Maggie Jarrett.
“When you see one of those (banners go up in the gym), you know you’ve created a big achievement for yourself and your community,” Jarrett said. “The team we had this year was so much fun. We had such a good connection.
“Coach Rat (Austin) always preaches to play to our standard. I think every game we were trying to live up to his expectation and our expectation, our standard.”
The day was also full of emotion as well, including for the Lady Panthers’ top playmaker, sophomore point guard Ace Austin.
“We cried a little bit,” Ace admitted. “We were sitting there watching it (highlight video) and we were like ‘Can we go back?’ It’s so, so fun just re-watching the highlights. You just remember everything from that day and night. It’s always good when you have tears of joy.
“Every one of us had a huge part in this. Take one of us off the team and it changes our team. We’re together, so it’s very special to see that banner go up.”
And the Lady Panthers are already hungering for more.
“This was very nice and sweet, but I think all during that video we said ‘We want to start basketball season again’” Ace said. “I think we realize how sweet this was. I think next year we’re going to have another goal where we want to win another one. We’re never satisfied with just one or two. We just want to keep doing it.”