The Salem girls’ basketball team ended last season with just five wins.
Of that low number, just of those wins was in region play, landing them dead last in Region 8-AAAA and well behind in the playoff race.
The Salem Seminoles suffered losing streaks of seven, six and three games last season before going just one game in the region tournament, being ousted out of the 2010-11 season by Habersham Central 60-47.
However, a year later the 2010-11 season is nothing more than history.
This week Salem watched as other teams played a first-round game in the Region 8-AAAA Tournament in Loganville. It then dispatched Madison County to earn a spot in the Class AAAA state playoffs. The Salem Seminoles went on to take it a step further, and earn a home-court game in the state tournament and a chance for a region title.
"I’m just really proud,” Salem coach Rachone Dilligard said. “I’m more proud for the kids because they have worked so hard and doing so much for us to be able to have this success this year.”
That work started soon after Dilligard was hired as head coach, and instilled a new philosophy and confidence into a young team.
During her first practice leading the Salem Seminoles, Dilligard gathered her team and asked them what their goals were.
The team responded that they wanted to be exactly where they were Friday night, playing for a region title, with a state berth in hand.
“We mapped out a plan on how to achieve that,” Dilligard said. “I’m so pround that they bought into it and have seen the benefits of that hard work.”
And hard work it was.
Dilligard went about strengthening her teams conditioning and the Salem Seminoles went about running, jumping and sweating. Not only did the players become more capable of running Dilligard’s high-pressure style but they also became closer in their shared distain for running.
“I saw they were buying into the conditioning,” Dilligard said. “A basketball season is made before the season starts with character and work ethic. During the season you play so many games that you have to have that built in before you start.
“We gelled as program as teammates. It’s the true definition of a team; they really bought into it. That’s who they are, and that has taken them to really great heights.”
The heights started out early as Salem reeled off nine straight wins to kick off the season. Salem didn’t allow more than 40 points by an opponent during that stretch, and held all but two to under 30.
“Our defense is really good,” Dilligard said. “I’m really proud of our defense. We knew we had to make a name for ourselves, and we wanted that name to be as a defensive team.”
The Salem Seminoles have also proven to be a strong rebounding team, with a lot stemming from their young athleticism. The center of that athleticism has been their center, Ayanna Mitchell.
Mitchell has been one of the best players in Region 8-AAAA as a freshman, and it often starts on the defensive end.
“She’s really poised, takes what’s given to her and creates a lot of additional opportunities for herself in defense and rebounding,” Dilligard said. “She fits right in with the other pieces of the puzzle.”
That showed itself as she scored 15 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the Salem Seminoles’ 43-30 win over Flowery Branch in the region semifinals on Tuesday.
That win put them within reach of something that wasn’t within sight a season ago. The year-long turnaround for Salem has been completed, now there’s just a matter of trying to complete the season in championship fashion.
“We had the talent and we had a lot of good pieces to fit together,” Dilligard said. “Of course you expect good things out of your hard work, and that’s what we talked about that we wouldn’t let anybody else outwork us.
It’s proving it now, as others are getting to see what we saw through that hard work.”