Before Lorie (Graves) Kerley coached junior varsity girls basketball players at Hoover High School, she was hitting jump shots and playing just about every position on the floor for the Cold Springs Lady Eagles.

Before Laura Harbison began blocking off an April wedding date and Mandy Willbanks began blocking off dates for the Elkmont Middle School baseball schedule, they were blocking out in the paint during one magical season.

Before Kasey (Willbanks) Bishop was a stay-at-home mom with 5-week-old son Landon, she was running the point and gunning down 3-pointers with fellow guard Robyn Light, who now spends her time keeping up with 14-month-old daughter Mia.

Before Tiffany (Mosley) Gambrill and Deserae (Campbell) Mullins were Tammy West's colleagues at Cold Springs School, they were her players in a historic run to the first state basketball title in Cullman County history.

"Tiffany and Deserae both teach here," West said with a laugh. "Deserae's classroom is right across the hall from mine. It's so weird. It makes me feel old."

"I can imagine it does make her feel old," said Deserae Mullins, who is related by marriage to current Eagles' point guard Natalie Mullins.

Even so, it is hard for any of the players to believe that it has been seven years since they claimed the Class 2A state title.

"It really seems like yesterday," said recent Montevallo graduate Vonda (Aaron) Baty, who is about to embark on a career in social work.

The 10 girls, including Peoples Bank employee Samantha Knott and Carraway Medical Center Nurse Karie (Rice) Gable, admit their trip to Birmingham was the journey of a lifetime.

"It's really flown by since then," Kerley said.

"I don't think any of us realized how huge it was to be playing for a state championship," Harbison said.

"I'll never forget hearing them play 'We Are The Champions' after we won," Gable said.

Raising expectations

If anything, the road they traveled raised the expectations for a basketball program — setting the stage for the current group of Cold Springs girls who will play Samson today in the state 2A semifinals tonight at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Complex.

"If you've never made it to the Final Four, you're pretty much satisfied with just making the regional," West said. "Once you've been there, you want your team to experience it again. Now when we lose at the regional, we're disappointed. It's really exciting to be going again for the second time in seven years."

"I wouldn't say that we've raised the bar, but I think we made a statement about our school and our community," Kerley said.

The players from the first team to make it to Birmingham don't get a chance to come by practices and even games very often because of work, but their presence is felt by the photo that hangs on the wall along with the championship banner or from the motivational talks West has with her players.

"My students mention seeing our picture," Gambrill said.

"A lot of the girls around here, especially when they're playing in pee wees, see the picture and makes them think that if we could do it, they can do it," Deserae Mullins said.

"Our team this year has worked really hard to accomplish what they (the 1999 team) did," West said.

At least one of the members of the 1999 team has played a role in developing the skills of a current player. Bishop worked with Natalie Mullins earlier in Mullins' career.

"I worked with her some on her ball handling," said Bishop, who served as a substitute teacher at the school before giving birth to her son.

Chemistry, friendships and hard work

It doesn't take them long to come up with reasons they were able to accomplish a feat no team in county history had accomplished before them, a feat duplicated by the 2001 Hanceville girls team and one within reach of this year's team.

"We had a team with so much chemistry," Kerley said.

"I remember how hard we worked the summer before," Light said. "We were at the gym it seemed like every day for about two months. We wore ankle weights, trying to get stronger."

It helped that most of them were close friends. Most of them had played on a team together since elementary school.

It was their friendships that stood out the most about their trip to Birmingham.

"It was great being able to spend time together at the hotel and going to all of the games," Knott said. "It was an exciting time. It's something I hope they (the current team) get to experience."

Deserae Mullins videotaped the escapades of the 1999 team during its stay in Birmingham, so much to the point that it annoyed West. But it is something she said her former coach now appreciates.

"She says she watches it all of the time," Deserae Mullins said.

Several members of the team have tried to keep up with their teammates and coach, but it has been hard to do, especially for Kerley and Willbanks, who no longer live in Cullman County.

"Tiffany (Gambrill) and I still keep in touch," Kerley said. "We were in each other's weddings. I've talked to Mrs. West a lot more since I've become a coach."

She and Gambrill were among the well wishers in the hallways at Wallace State greeting their former coach after her team's victory over Cleveland.

"We really didn't get to talk to her a whole lot," Gambrill said. "I know she was really busy."

Willbanks has also kept up with her former school. She found herself in an awkward position last year. She was teaching at Tanner, whose team opened the regional against the Eagles just as it did this year.

"I rode down with the (Tanner) girls' team, but sat on Cold Springs' side," Willbanks said.

There was no conflict this year, since she is in her first season as a coach at Elkmont. She's proven to be a successful coach in her own right, leading the Red Devils to an undefeated middle school season.

Most of the former players will be down in Birmingham tonight pulling for this year's team to advance to the finals.

"It works out pretty well for me, I usually get off early on Tuesday," Harbison said. "I work at St. Vincent's, which makes it convenient."

Advice for current team

Most of the members of the 1999 team didn't have a lot of words of wisdom to impart on the team trying to match their feat other than this: Enjoy the moment.

"I'd tell them to just go out and have fun," Kerley said.

"Just enjoy every single minute of it," Harbison said. "Not a whole lot of people get to experience playing in a state championship game."

They also encourage the current team members not to be nervous, although it wasn't something they were able to totally avoid.

Kerley claimed she was nervous, but it didn't show when she hit the first shot attempted in the state semifinals — a 3-pointer that gave the Eagles a lead they wouldn't give up against Southern Choctaw. She went on to claim MVP honors of the state tournament.

Light claimed she was nervous too, but it didn't show in the championship game when she hit a finals record five 3-pointers.

"I really didn't play well in the first game," she said. "I only scored six points in that game."

Proud of her team

West said she was proud of her players more for what they accomplished off the court than on, which is remarkable considering her team racked up a 32-1 record which included a 24-game winning streak. The team held the No. 1 ranking the entire season.

She points out that several of her players were honor students, with four eventually joining her in the teaching profession. Two of the others went into the medical profession.

"They were all really good kids," West said. "I never had a problem with any of them.

The feeling of admiration is mutual. Most of her former players still refer to her as "Miss West" even though two of them now work alongside her at Cold Springs.

"She does such a great job with her girls," Kerley said. "She teaches them not only how to be good players, but to be good people."

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