OCHS senior Julia Peroni led the Lady Warriors with 18 points in her final high school game.

GRIFFIN—When you’ve been together as long as Julia Peroni, La’Nya Scott, Campbell Ball, Vanessa Sekandi and Sybille Foucart have been you tend to grow close.

The seniors of Oconee County High School’s girls basketball team were thrown to the varsity wolves early in their high school careers.

They expectedly took their lumps. The Lady Warriors finished 2016 7-18. The next year, they improved to 10-16.

Year three was the payoff. The Lady Warriors went 17-14 and qualified for their first state tournament since the 2014-2015 season.

This season the Lady Warriors earned their second straight Sweet 16 berth while finishing second in Region 8-4A.

Their successes may be the moments they remember in the forefront of their minds. The down times and the laughter they heard from peers during the times of struggle forged the bond that the Lady Warriors’ five seniors now cherish.

Scott remembers the discouraging comments. She wanted badly to shut those voices off.

“The most difficult thing was nobody believing in us,” Scott said. “We had no positivity coming into the group. Even players on the team didn’t believe. It was us, the class of 2020, trying to build each other up and encourage each other. It was hard not having anyone believing in us so that we could do better.”

As teammates departed, either by graduation or other interests, Peroni, Scott, Ball Sekandi and Foucart stuck with it. The laughter continued but their bond strengthened. By the beginning of this season that laughter was support. After entering with nine players in their class, the remaining five set their goals for 2019-2020 high. They wanted to win a region championship. They nearly did.

Winning matters to the Lady Warriors, but being together has gotten the program out of the rut it was in when they stepped into it. They've become more than just teammates in the process.

“We’re still like sisters basically,” Scott said.

Thursday night all five seniors checked out of the game together as a group one last time as time ran down on a season-ending defeat at the hands of 2018 state champion and 2019 state runner-up Spalding High School. The Lady Warriors took a shot at one of the state’s heavyweights, but ultimately were overcome 52-38.

The Lady Warriors came off the bus swinging and it gave them a 33-20 advantage with four minutes remaining in the third quarter. Over the final 12 plus minutes the Lady Warriors were outscored 32-5.

Reaching the Sweet 16 and having the defending state runner ups on the ropes straddles the line between a marker of success and a haunting disappointment.

OCHS head coach Phillip Manning didn’t have the answer to which one he felt immediately following the game. The Lady Warriors have come from a seven-win team to a team that expect to and could have beaten one of the best the state has to offer in just three years. Flashing through moments immediately after the 33-20 lead was painful for Manning coming out of the locker room. In the days coming he suspects things will lighten and the magnitude of the Lady Warriors’ progress will set in.

“When you ask me that question in two hours I may have a different answer for you, then if you answer for me in 24 hours I might have a different answer for you,” Manning said. “On one end, we had a 13-point lead on a very good team. It definitely makes it sting knowing that we were right there and didn’t finish it out like we needed to. The silver lining is that the Lady Warriors from Oconee County just went toe-to-toe with one of the top programs in the state on the road. That’s something our girls should be proud of.”

Like Manning, players will have different stages of emotion following the 2019-2020 season. On one hand, a group of five seniors took a seven-win program to the edges of elite 4A basketball and on the other the players that return will remember the constant pinch and tug at the heartstrings that comes with suffering a defeat like Thursday’s.

Manning hopes the young players use it as fuel. He hopes his five seniors take heed to the message he spoke to the tearful octet on the sideline.

“For the senior girls it’s about looking at where they’ve journeyed through their careers through the highs and lows,” Manning said. “They have established a culture of fight and commitment. We can’t thank them enough for that.”

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