Without hesitancy, Dennis Watkins can point to one game where things changed for the Stephenson girls basketball program.
Three years into his tenure as head coach of the then-six-year-old school, Watkins held a Sunday practice the day before the 2001 region basketball tournament. During this practice, he told his players they could win despite the fact that their opponent, Tri-Cities, was the tournament’s top seed and had beaten Stephenson twice in the regular season by 20 points or more.
Stephenson upset Tri-Cities and qualified for the Class AAAAA state tournament for the first time. Stephenson has matched the feat every year since. The Jaguars, who won state championships in 2005 and 2007, finished 16-10 in 2001 and have won at least 20 games every season since.
“I tried to tell the girls that it was huge for us to win that game [against Tri-Cities],” Watkins said. “From that point on, I knew they could do good things if they kept working hard.”
Watkins and assistant coach Reginald Harris, who came on board in 2001, make sure that good things continue to happen.
Discipline and a hard work ethic are two concepts where Watkins has little wiggle room. Seeing his players dragging a little while running at the end of a recent practice, Watkins encouraged the group to pick up the pace.
The concept is so entrenched that players in their first varsity season already know the drill.
“I knew what I was supposed to do when I got up to varsity,” said sophmore Kahliyah Mitchell, who already is drawing interest from Duke, Georgia, Ohio State and other top programs. “I was nervous at first but I got used to it. Coaches tell me to play hard and do what I do.”
Mitchell, along with seniors Danielle Jackson and Kayla Kudratt, form the nucleus of a team that is off to an 11-3 start this year.
“Every year our goal is to win region and state,” Watkins said. “The sky is the limit. We have to set our goals that high. Decent is not OK around here.”
“Decent” has been in the rearview mirror for years at Stephenson. Since 2001 when the Jaguars lost in the first round, the team is 28-7 in state tournament games.
“If you don’t come in with a work ethic, you’re not going to make it at Stephenson,” Harris said.
That work ethic included practicing during the recent week off for the snowstorm, and running on Sundays on the honor system.
Watkins’ motivation for building this winning formula was inspired, he said, by Norcross coach Angie Hembree who won the Class AAAAA state title last year. Hembree also built Collins Hill into a state power and won several titles there.
“I liked the way she operated and I wanted to be in that conversation [of the top teams in the state],” Watkins said. “But there’s a lot that goes with it. I instilled in them hard work and the dedication that goes with it. You have to be in the gym every day if you are serious.”
Each senior class that leaves Stephenson leaves something for those remaining to strive for. Jackson, who already has a scholarship offer from the Air Force Academy, and Kudratt are among a group of five seniors who are trying to leave with another championship ring. Jackson and Kudratt were freshmen the last time the Jaguars won a state title.
“We want to get the same end result and I’m not leaving here without a ring,” Jackson said. “We
want to keep the tradition going.”
Said Kudratt, “[Coach Watkins] taught us to play intense all the time. When we were first on the varsity, you had to be driven and learn what they did.”
Part of the tradition at Stephenson involves former players coming back to the program to serve as an example of the program’s success. Since 2007, 12 players have gone on to receive scholarships.
Over the Christmas break, several players came back to offer encouragement at practices and games. Among alumni now playing in college who visited were Danielle Gray (Jacksonville State), Jasmine Smith (Tennessee State) and Ashlea Billingslea (Mississippi State).
“That’s the tradition here,” Watkins said. “The girls see the ones in college coming back and they’re still working hard in college. They go through the drills with them.
“They see these girls who have been successful on the next level and it lets them know that you have to have a work ethic in college, too,” Watkins continued. “If you do that, it makes you a better person and opens up job opportunities. I let them know that it’s a blessing to be able to go to school for free.”
Lady Jaguars by the numbers
2: State championships in past 7 seasons
9: Years in a row with at least 20 wins
12: Players who have received scholarships since 2007
28: State tournament wins (28-8 record); second only to Southwest DeKalb among girls county programs
Record: 11-3; Ranking: No. 8 in Class AAAAA coaches poll