Central Magnet was a doormat to District 8-AA during its inaugural season of girls basketball varsity action a season ago.
Things are vastly different in Year 2. A year after winning just one district game, the Lady Tigers are in third place in 8-AA, and have battled the two state-ranked teams ahead of them — Cannon County and Livingston Academy — down to the wire in at least one meeting.
“It’s a really good feeling,” Central Magnet sophomore point guard Claudia Smith said. “Last year we had a rough season, where we got embarrassed at times. (Teams) dogged on us.
“But we’ve surprised a lot of people this year. All of our hard work has paid off.”
It has paid off in a big way. Central Magnet enters tonight’s home district contest with DeKalb County already with 20 wins. The Lady Tigers went just 9-19 a year ago.
Tipoff is set for 6 p.m.
“We sort of took our lumps last year,” Central Magnet coach Steve Willey said. “But we could tell at the end of last year that we were getting better.
“They were buying in to what we were trying to do. This year they just took off.”
They have done it with a youthful roster. Ashley Brewer is the lone senior on the team. Mackenzie White, who is the lone junior, is currently out with a knee injury.
Brewer is joined in the starting lineup with four sophomores.
She has played the past three years with her Central teammates. The team played a junior varsity season during the school’s first year — the 2010-11 season — due to TSSAA transfer rules.
“For the last three years, I’ve been the oldest on the team,” said Brewer, who plans on attending MTSU and studying psychology with a business management minor in the fall. “I’ve grown up with them. They are all mature girls.”
Smith and teammate Ola Obi lead the team in scoring with 15.6 points and 11.8 points respectively. Smith has been the starting point guard since her eighth-grade year during the school’s first year open.
Central Magnet (20-4) has thrived on the defensive end. The Lady Tigers are giving up just 34.3 points a game, which ranks seventh in the state in fewest points allowed among all TSSAA schools.
Willey enters his second season at the school. He also had coaching stints at La Vergne and Smyrna, and led Smyrna to the 2008 TSSAA Class AAA state tournament.
He credits his coaching staff — former Blackman boys coach Kyle Turnham and former MTCS coach Katie McKnight — for their “invaluable contributions.”
Willey said he thought the team improved tremendously over the summer. As other schools looked at lineups to replaced graduated players, the Lady Tigers’ lineup was already in place.
“We did not have to do a lot of tinkering,” Willey said. “We could tell then that we had a chance to be pretty good.”
Three of the four losses — two to Cannon County and an overtime loss to Livingston Academy — came against teams ranked in the Associated Press’ Class AA statewide poll.
The Lady Tigers also were among schools that received votes for the top-10 poll when the first poll was released this season.
The only other loss was to Cookeville, a Class AAA team.
“We have the will to win,” Obi said. “Our season basically shows you can do anything, especially playing against a bunch of seniors in our league.”
Obi said the team’s youth isn’t used as a crutch for losses, or if the team has a bad outing. At this point in the season, it’s not brought up.
Central’s success on the athletic arena comes with high academic standards to adhere to as students of the county’s only magnet high school. Willey said he realizes his players have more to their lives than basketball.
“Our kids are a little bit different,” Willey said. “They know there is something else other than basketball. They are very gifted in the classroom. They are very gifted in other extra-curricular activities. That’s a statement to this school.
“We have a saying: When you’re hear at practice, keep your mind on practice. Most of them have a lot of homework, a lot of projects and other things they are working on. But when they are at practice, they have to have their minds ready for practice.”
Thus far, the team has figured out how to balance the two.
While Brewer will leave the program after the season, she admits she will follow the team and remember her time helping start the program.
“I’m excited for all of these girls,” she said. “I wish I could go on with them. I think they’ll do great things.
“It mean a lot to me that I’ll be able to say I’m part of this program one day.”