It’s never too early to start thinking about the postseason and, if you are a part of the Mill Creek High School girls’ basketball team, it’s probably on the radar before the season even begins.
The Hawks have suffered just one losing season since the school opened in 2004, but since then they have become one of the most storied programs in the state.
In just eight seasons, the Hawks have made two Final Four and three Elite Eight appearances. Mill Creek has built a winning tradition that probably won’t slow down any time soon. Head Coach Ashley Phillips admitted that nothing has been handed to his team in terms of winning, but there is a certain level of anticipation within the program.
“I don’t look at it as a given. It’s not automatic. Just because we’ve done well in the past doesn’t mean we are going to do well this year. It helps because the kids have the right mindset,” Phillips said.
“They don’t just go into the season [thinking] ‘let’s just have a winning record.’ You’ve got a lot of schools that you’ve beaten in the past that really want to beat you. Even a school like North Gwinnett that has beaten us will be up and ready to play when we play them. It is nice to know that your program has a certain expectation and the kids understand that,” said Phillips.
The Hawks will have a mixture of young and old on the team but the two returning veterans should be strong contributors in every facet. The two were also on the Final Four team two years ago, so they know what it takes to get through tough region play.
“We’ve got two returning starters. Both of them are seniors. Nadiya Miller is a shooting guard [and] I would expect her to lead us in scoring [but], we’ll see,” said Phillips. “She’s our returning leader as far as scoring. India Dillard is a post player. They’ve both started since they were sophomores and they have a lot of [experience].”
The Hawks lost three starters and a few more that saw a significant amount of time on the court. However, they return other athletes who are fully aware of the road ahead of them, despite not having as much playing time.
The Hawks’ must-see matchup of the year will be against North Gwinnett High School. Mill Creek defeated the Bulldogs in the 2006-07 as well as in 2007-08 season. However, NGHS has been the victor lately, as the Hawks have not beaten them over the last two seasons. Last season, the rivalry extended through the postseason where the Hawks fell to the Bulldogs in the third round of the state playoffs.
“We played them three times [last season]. The game here was fairly close but the other two were not. We just haven’t played well. That’s the one team we have not played well against the last two years. They are the only team in the region we haven’t beaten in the last two years,” said Phillips.
“Their so loaded right now [and] incredibly talented. Norcross and North Gwinnett both are really talented. It’s a tough region,” said Phillips.
The Hawks took an earlier exit than they would have liked last year, but Phillips said he was satisfied with the season.
“We lost in the third round. It was a good season. We had a couple of ups and downs as far as with our schedule being really tough. There were a couple of times where we lost two or three in row,” he said. “We ended up 21-10 which is a pretty good record. The main thing we’re focusing on is the postseason [and] trying to prepare ourselves for the region tournament and the state tournament.
“I was pretty happy with the way we [finished] in the postseason. I wasn’t happy with our performance against North Gwinnett, but part of that was due to them coming out and playing really well. They came out on fire [as far as] shooting the ball. We didn’t respond as well as we could have but, that was a tough game for us,” said Phillips.
The Hawks are looking forward to playing their best ball in regular season play, but it won’t necessarily prove how well they will do in the postseason.
“We’ve been pretty consistent in our postseason performances. We’ve been to the Elite Eight the past three years. I think that is the expectation. We don’t get to specific with goals and try to [figure out how far we are going to go]. There’s just too much you can’t control about that. We try to focus on being the best team we can be and hopefully that prepares us for the state tournament. The players probably think more about that [in wanting] to go farther than they’ve gone in the past,” Phillips stated.
“A lot of it has to do with the work ethic that we expect and our kids are really good at working hard in practice and doing what we ask them to do. That’s where you go back to the players before them who established that mindset,” Phillips said.
Phillips has just one freshman on the varsity squad and she will probably see some playing time this season. It will be a tough, yet rewarding challenge for someone so young to have to compete against girls that are three or four years older.
“A lot of it comes down to not just their playing ability but their confidence within themselves and not being intimidated. Those are the kids that can get out there and do it. It’s impressive when you’re 14 and you’re playing against 17- and 18-year-olds. If you can go out there and compete, it’s not really easy to do. I think every year we’ve had one if not two freshmen that have seen significant time or even started for us,” Phillips stated.
Going into the season, Phillips has the same mentality he always does but hopes his team can make a deeper run if they reach the state playoffs.
“It sounds like avoiding the question but it’s the same every year. My thought is ‘what can we do to be the best team we can be?’ The reason why that works for me is because there’s a lot of stuff you can’t control as far as how many games you win and how far you go in the playoffs,” Phillips said.
“We had a year (I think it was the third year [after] the school opened) where we were the third best team in the state but, we lost in the second round in the playoffs because the team we played in the second round was the second best team in the state. Sometimes with the state and even the region tournament there’s a lot you can’t control,” stated Phillips.
It’s too early for Phillips to pinpoint exactly how many minutes each player will see on the court and when, however, once the season progresses, he said he will be able to fit all the pieces to the puzzle and hopefully everything will fit just right.
“We see certain things in practice but we have to see them in a game to see how things are going to fit together and who can handle certain roles,” said Phillips.