Last season, the New Manna Lady Wind’s journey to their first state basketball championship was something of a magical mystery tour, with all the pieces seemingly falling into place on cue.
This year, the trip was more like driving a mid-70s Country Squire station wagon with bad shocks up Mt. Mitchell on a washed-out single-track.
The view from the top, however, was just as sweet.
The Lady Wind overcame a litany of bad breaks and a veritable sea of adversity en route to winning their second straight North Carolina Christian Schools Association 1A State title with a 55-47 victory over Southview Christian Feb. 23 in Durham.
They did it despite injuries, illnesses, surgeries and a confidence-shattering run of inexplicable sub-par performances that included a pair of bitter defeats against their arch-rivals.
“It was such a crazy year,” said third-year head coach Curtis Styles. “We had a gall bladder surgery, a hernia surgery, a broken thumb, a broken wrist, a broken collarbone; we had one attacked by a dog over Thanksgiving break.
“This year was about the journey; the battle of getting there.”
Indeed, every step was a battle for the defending state champs, who had gone 18-3 the previous season en route to the first basketball state title in the tiny private school’s 24-year history.
The Lady Wind (15-5) started the 2018-19 campaign 4-0, but then came a 50-43 loss to Reynolds Mountain Christian Academy, a team New Manna had been beaten by 12 a week earlier. The usually reserved Styles was hit with a pair of technical fouls and got tossed from the game.
Along about the same time, the Lady Wind temporarily lost the services of its lone senior, Karsen Shirley. The team’s leading rebounder and an unquestioned leader, Shirley had to undergo gall bladder surgery in December. Doctors discovered a hernia during the operation, so they fixed that, too. A week later, Shirley had four wisdom teeth removed.
Still, New Manna played well at an invitational tournament in Tennessee, winning two of three against tough competition, and appeared poised to begin a run toward a second straight NCCSA District 1 championship.
“I thought we would come out of that tournament with some momentum,” said Styles. “Those were the best teams we’ve ever played, and we won two out of three.”
But there was no momentum to be found, and the Lady Wind were about to hit a rough patch in the road.
“We thought we were going to cruise right through this, and then reality hit us,” said Daylee Styles, a freshman standout. “We aren’t going to be able to just stroll right to a championship.”
New Manna still stood at 8-2 when Hickory Tabernacle – the school’s longtime rival – whipped the Lady Wind 57-46.
That loss started a miserable stretch that saw the Lady Wind lose four of six. Among the setbacks was a somewhat chippy, emotionally charged 51-42 defeat to Tabernacle at New Manna that effectively sealed the District 1 championship for the Hickory club.
“One of their girls came by and clapped and smiled at us right in front of him (Styles), and right in front of our bench,” said junior Allie Jarrett. “We were a little furious.”
Next came a 53-27 drubbing on the road against Mountain View Academy of Cowpens, S.C.
“We just lost confidence,” said Coach Styles. “We ended up losing three out of four for the first time in three years. I hadn’t seen a team break our will, but they (Mountain View) kind of did.”
It was early February and the Lady Wind were sputtering at 10-5.
“We needed to have a ‘get-right’ game,” said Coach Styles. “We needed one more win to insure we finished second (behind Tabernacle, which finished the regular season unbeaten at 6-0 in District 1 play and 16-1 overall) and we played Victory (Sylva) here, and it was like everything got back to clicking.”
New Manna blasted Victory 75-22 and didn’t lose another game. The Lady Wind finished the regular season with a 61-30 thumping of Woodland Baptist.
Next came the state tournament in Durham. The way the bracket set up for New Manna, a win in the opening round likely meant a third meeting with Tabernacle in the semis. Southview Christian, the club the Lady Wind edged for the title the previous year, loomed in the finals.
“We looked at the bracket, and of what we thought were the four best teams (themselves included), we were going to have to play all three of them,” said Coach Styles. “I told the kids, I packed three ties. I plan on playing three games.”
He ended up wearing them all.
New Manna 63, Fayetteville Street Christian (Asheboro) 48
First, the Lady Wind had to get past an unknown quantity in first-round opponent Fayetteville Street (Asheboro).
“We knew if we worked together we could beat Hickory,” said Jarrett. “We had beaten Southview before. But we knew nothing about Fayetteville Street.”
Conversely, Fayetteville Street knew nothing about New Manna post Breigh Stewart, but the junior – who was instrumental in last season’s run to the championship – introduced herself to the tune of 25 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and two assists in a 63-48 rout.
Styles (5 rebounds, 4 assists) and point guard Alexis Duncan (5 assists) tossed in 10 apiece, while Karsen Shirley (7 points) pulled 10 boards and Sunshyne Shirley, an eighth-grader, finished with seven points, 12 rebounds and five steals. Jarrett chipped in with five.
Fayetteville Street standout Kirsten Jensen went for a game-high 31 in a losing effort.
New Manna 45, Hickory Tabernacle 44
The first-round victory set up round three with Tabernacle Hickory. The Lady Wind fell behind 7-0 to start the game, but rallied to tie it at halftime despite foul trouble for Duncan.
“We go as Alexis goes,” said Coach Styles. “She’s our point guard and we want to push the ball. So she goes to four fouls, and we were without our point guard. She probably didn’t play two minutes in the second half.”
But Jarrett, Styles and Sunshyne Shirley filled in admirably in Duncan’s absence, breaking Tabernacle’s three-quarter-court press. Styles sparked a strong second-half run by scoring eight in a row, including a four-point play on a 3-pointer and foul.
New Manna still led by only one at 45-55 after a Tabernacle follow shot with three seconds left. Styles went to an inbounds play he had installed earlier in the week on which Jarrett was to break down court for a long pass, and it worked to perfection, with the inbounder, Karsen Shirley, “channeling Peyton Manning,” according to the coach.
Jarrett took a dribble and then stopped, wrapping the ball in her arms for what she called “the longest three seconds of my life,” as time expired.
Stewart had 15 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter, and nine boards for New Manna. Jarrett scored 12 and made 8 of 10 free throws. Styles added 10, while Karsen Shirley (4 points) pulled down 16 rebounds. Sunshyne Shirley and Duncan, who both eventually fouled out, scored two apiece.
“Allie did a really good job of taking care of the ball, and Karson got every rebound,” said Coach Styles. “Breigh just did what Breigh does.
“There’s something about Breigh when she gets to Durham.”
New Manna 55, Southview Christian 47
The final turned out to be a bit anticlimactic, even though New Manna led by just one at halftime.
Steady performances from the usual suspects allowed the Lady Wind to pull away in the second half. Stewart (10 rebounds), Sunshyne Shirley (10 rebounds, 4 steals) and Jarrett scored 11 points apiece in the win.
Duncan – who had recorded a triple-double earlier in the season – came close again with 10 points, eight boards, six assists and four steals. Daylee Styles (8 points, 6 rebounds) and Karsen Shirley (4 points, 8 rebounds) also contributed.
In the game’s final 35 seconds and the Lady Wind holding onto a safe, eight-point lead, Jarrett told Styles to savor the moment. “We’re up eight and there’s 35 seconds left in our state championship,” Jarrett said to her teammate in the backcourt during a Southview free throw.
Reality hit Styles again at that instant.
“We just came from a really low place as a team and worked our way back up, and here we are, and we’ve got this,” she said. “We’re about to be back-to-back state champions.”
The win was especially sweet for Karsen Shirley, whose journey was perhaps the rockiest of all.
“I’m glad that we were able to do it again, especially on my senior year, because it sends me out with two wins in a row, and also because I didn’t even know if I was going to get to play that much because of the surgery,” Shirley said. “It was exciting.”
The roughest rides usually are.
Notes: Stewart was named first-team all-state, while Duncan and Daylee Styles were named all-region…New Manna also won the sportsmanship award for the second straight year. The award is voted on by the teams, a fact the players said make it an especially meaningful honor…The Lady Wind thrived on balanced scoring all season. Styles averaged 13 points per game, Stewart 12 and Duncan 11…New Manna is 33-8 over the last two seasons, with only two defeats to in-state 1A teams…New Manna’s boys team also made the state finals, but fell 84-69 to Fellowship Baptist. The Wind finished the season 18-3 overall and went a perfect 6-0 to claim the District 1 regular-season championship. Coach Charlie Gardin’s club returns many of its key players next year.