COVINGTON, Ga. -- Lexii Chatman is supposed to be the stoic one on the court. One of the Newton Lady Rams least likely to show emotion.
However, right before Newton broke down its last huddle in its last practice before its last game of the season, the sharp-shooting senior guard broke down first.
Face in her hands, shirt over her face, Newton’s leading scorer for the last three seasons showed a side of herself that even she wasn’t necessarily planning to show in that moment.
“I didn’t expect it,” Chatman said.
Chatman is one of six Newton seniors who will take the court together for the final time Saturday at 6 p.m. when the sixth-ranked Rams meet No. 1 Westlake in the Georgia High School Association’s Class AAAAAAA state championship game at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion.
Chatman along with Jurnee Smith, Takiya Cotton, Efia Edwards, Tamaya Freeman and Erianna Card have all played been playing together since they were freshman at Newton. Some of them have been sharing the court with each other even longer than that.
“I’ve been playing with Lex since we were like 7 years old,” Smith said.
“Yeah,” Card chimed in. “Like, me and Jurnee have been playing together since rec ball. It’s crazy.”
And Cotton can’t believe it’s almost over already.
“It’s bittersweet because I love these girls,” Cotton said. “And to be done with our season, I feel like we came to a good point, and we came to where we expected to be, but I didn’t expect it to come this fast.”
Or, perhaps, so far. This potential state championship squad has come a long way since that 2014-15 season when the six freshmen were apart of a 17-10 bunch that ended the year with back-to-back losses to Tucker in the Region 2-AAAAAA tournament and then to Colquitt County in the first round of the state tournament.
Both were close — four-point losses. Fast forward to the seniors’ swan song in the state title game, and while some may be surprised that this group has made it to this point, coach Tiffani Johnson is far from shocked.
“It feels like these seniors now see who we’ve seen from the beginning,” Johnson said. “As freshmen, we were telling them you can be this kind of player. You can do this. And we’ve worked through the confidence things and worked through getting them game experience and I think you see that self esteem and confidence showing up on the floor.”
But that confidence comes from another place, according to Chatman. It comes from the non-basketball bond these girls share.
“That’s like family,” Chatman said. “If anyone needs somebody, we’re there. We’re all sisters. Like, it’s more than just a team. This is like family for real. One call and we’re there.”
In Card’s case, however, she didn’t even have to make a call for her sisters to show up during one of the toughest moments of her young life.
Last Saturday, just hours before Newton’s semifinals win over McEachern, Card lost her grandfather. This Friday, a little more than 24 hours before the Rams play for a state championship, members of the team, including the coaching staff, showed up to the funeral in support of their teammate.
Card said her basketball family’s presence shifted her mood.
“I was crying at first,” she said, “and when I saw them it brought smiles to my face.”
It’s that uncanny way they all had of making each other smile that each senior said they’ll miss most after they make that last trip to a game as a team.
“I’m gonna miss all the laughs,” Chatman said. “I swear I laughed so hard with these girls. I never laughed this much in my life.”
Cotton echoed Chatman’s sentiments.
“The homes games,” she said. “I’ll miss dancing in the locker rooms. On the away games, I’ll miss Lex singing in my ear on the bus on the way.”
Smith said she was often the punchline to some good-natured jokes, but she didn’t mind.
“Them picking on me is what I’ll miss most,” she said. “Talking about I’ve got hamburger hands. I’ll miss that.”
Freeman’s recollection was a bit more serious, though.
“Just being with them every single day,” she said. “Like I’m with them more than I’m with my family. Monday through Friday, and sometimes Saturday.”
“Sometimes Sunday too,” Smith chimed in.
“For me, I loved our talks,” Freeman continued. “I know I can go to them for anything.”
Edwards said she knows that Saturday’s game won’t be the last time they’ll talk with each other. She knows the bond will continue. But she acknowledges that without basketball, it’ll be a little different.
“Just us as a whole,” she said. “I know we’re not going to not talk after this. But I’ll really miss our connection. We really grew together during this year. Us laughing, joking, crying. All of that.”
But it’s not over yet. One more time to put on the Newton blue and white. One more opportunity to take their sisterhood to the hardwood. And this time for the ultimate prize.
“That’s the good part about this being our last game,” Smith said. “We get to play for a championship. And we’re very confident. I feel like as people keep doubting us, and saying we’re underdogs, it keeps us pushing.”
After Friday’s practice, there was a team meal waiting for them. The six seniors, now out of their practice gear and dressed in regular street clothes, looked like more like typical high school students than basketball players. But before they went in to dine, they pulled in tight with each other for one more break down.
After collectively talking about their love for their coaches and their intentions to win Saturday’s game, they concluded by saying in unison what has become their mantra through this magical season.
“No pain, no gain,” they shouted with one voice. “No guts, no glory. No will, no way. Love ya’ll. Love ya’ll too. Lady Rams on three.”