'The Endgame': Tough schedule, senior class have helped deliver Dalton to state semifinals

Mar. 1—Dalton High School head girls basketball coach Hannah Harris knows that Class 5A semifinal opponent Midtown is going to be difficult to deal with.

But she's still confident in her team's readiness for the moment.

"To prepare for that game, and for the playoffs, we played the second toughest schedule in Class 5A basketball," Harris said after her team powered over Arabia Mountain 71-52 in the Class 5A quarterfinals on Tuesday. "The preparation that we went through had us poised in a position to be prepared to play."

That was the thinking behind the effort to load up on talented teams when Harris was building the Lady Catamounts' non-region schedule and scheduling teams like 6A power New Manchester or two of the top 7A teams in Campbell or Carrollton.

If Dalton did what she thought the team could and made a deep run in the Class 5A playoffs, she wanted her team to be prepared.

"You keep those games on your schedule for a reason. They don't always go your way, but the hope is that you get better in the process and you are able to win the games when they matter most," Harris said. "There is not anything we're going to see from anybody in this tournament that we are not prepared for based on our region and non-region play."

Now, the games are to the point where they certainly "matter most." Dalton's talent and preparation have guided the Lady Catamounts through three rounds of the state tournament and to a spot in the Final Four for the first time since the 2011 Dalton team reached the state championship game.

The next test of that preparation is Midtown. The Lady Catamounts (21-9) play the second-seeded team from Region 5-5A tonight at 5 in the 5A semifinals at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.

Midtown (26-5) finished second in its region to Maynard Jackson, another Final Four team on the other side of the bracket. Jackson plays Cartersville, a Region 7-5A opponent of Dalton, in the other state semifinal, with the winners to meet Thursday in Macon for the state championship.

Midtown blasted Loganville 60-33 in the first round of the 5A playoffs, defeated Greater Atlanta Christian 69-48 in the Sweet 16 and downed Jones County 58-37 in the Elite 8.

One of the five losses for Midtown — three came against Maynard Jackson — came against Creekside, the team Dalton defeated 70-60 in the second round of the playoffs. Creekside shared a region with Midtown and Jackson, finishing third and beating Midtown once in the two games the two teams played.

"We mirror each other in a lot of ways, from all of the scouting I've done so far. When you play a team that's disciplined and well-coached and plays hard, that's a challenge," Harris said. "They're a really aggressive team that wants to push you and score off your mistakes. We want to make it a half-court game and force them to run an offense and score out of it. I think if we do that, more than not, the game goes in our favor."

When Harris, a Dalton graduate, took the Dalton job prior to the 2020-21 season, she knew that the class of now-seniors, then-freshman, would have a chance to lead the Lady Catamounts to some postseason successes.

Gracie Ridley, the back-to-back recipient of the Region 7-5A Player of the Year and the Dalton Daily Citizen All-Area Player of the Year, is in the class, as well as standout guards Kemara Washington, Emma Hefner and Cadence Blackwell.

After a 9-15 campaign with a young team in year one under Harris, Dalton went 21-8 and reached the first round of the 6A playoffs in year two. Last season, Dalton was 21-9 and reached the Sweet 16 in 5A.

Now, with that senior class at its best, and with some key contributions from the younger Lady Cats, Dalton has cashed in for a trip to the state semifinals and hopes to keep the run going for another game.

"Sometimes in coaching, you have a vision or a plan or a goal and you don't quite get there. With this group, when I came in with them in their freshman season, this year was kind of the endgame all along. To see this year become a reality has been very special," Harris said. "To watch them believe in something and be able to achieve it so far has been amazing."

The "endgame" senior season for Ridley and company didn't always go according to plan — injury and sickness led to some missed games for a few key players early in the year, including Ridley herself. Dalton was at one point 4-5, but righted the ship in time to go 8-2 in Region 7-5A play, including a pair of wins over fellow semifinalist Cartersville, grab the top seed for the region tournament and hammer Cartersville again in the region finals. Dalton is 10-1 in its last 11 games.

"We're playing our best basketball at the best time," Harris said. "We just want to keep winning and keep getting to the next game so we can keep being around each other. and that's pretty special at this time of year."