A childhood friend is on the mend, and last week posted on Facebook that Monday night’s girls’ basketball matchup between Southeast Raleigh and East Wake high schools would be the first Bulldogs state playoff game she’s missed in eight years.
Tuesday night, in her honor, I went to my first.
It made sense. My friend’s daughter, now a college freshman, played on the Southeast Raleigh team, including last year in the NCHSSA 4A state championship game.
Plus, I’ve watched the team’s senior leaders, Amber Richardson and Jade Phillips, grow from seventh-grade athletes who inspired my own daughter to choose sports to standout recruits – Richardson by N.C. State University, and Phillips by Syracuse University.
I also saw older, more athletic versions of other former middle school players, and recognized others as my friends’ children.
It was a good night. Not only did I watch the state’s two most winning teams for the past 15 years go head-to-head, but the Southeast Raleigh girls – my home team – advanced to the east regional semifinals of the women’s basketball state playoffs with a 56-52 win over Durham’s Hillside High.
The Bulldogs are set to take on Athens Drive High on Friday. If they win, they’ll play in the state championship game Saturday, March 14.
But what I learned about the foundation of the Bulldog program was icing on the rah-rah of cheers that reverberated throughout the Southeast Raleigh gymnasium.
“This is a so-real moment tonight because these girls have worked very, very hard to be here,” said Nikki Sutton, a childhood neighbor of mine whose daughter is sophomore Southeast shooting guard Mariah Partin. “For my daughter to be part of this team is like family.”
It’s a foundation of academics and family and a winning tradition of teamwork laid by the school’s first-ever coaches, said Keith Boddie, Southeast Raleigh’s athletic director.
“Once you’re here, you’re part of the Bulldog family,” he said.
What that means is students from across the county welcomed by coaches who lead as masters of athleticism, teamwork and academics; a faculty that encourages and tutors; a community that cheers – loudly; and a team willing to “push themselves to be the best they can be to bring pride to our school.”
“As an AD, I’m just proud,” Boddie said. “With such a great tradition here, we bring our community and alumni together, and keep our tradition alive.”
At game time, Coach Nicole Meyers points to defense.
“Our defense is what can be consistent, and that takes a team effort,” she said.
Add selflessness, and “that makes us very tough to guard,” she said. “On any given night, anybody can lead us in scoring.”
Consider, too, Meyers expects a strong squad of underclassmen to fill spots left by five seniors who leave this year, just like last.
“We have a firm foundation,” she said.
One is freshman Jada McMillian.
“They motivate me to play better,” McMillian, 15, said of veteran teammates. “We play together, stay as a team and pick each other up. We take care of each other.”
For Richardson and Phillips, that’s been happening since the two started playing AAU basketball for the same team. They were 7.
Since we first met, Richardson said, her responsibility to the game and her team has transformed.
“I have to play multiple roles now, as a vocal leader on and off the court,” she said. “I’m more focused on my game, and on uplifting my team.”
Phillips, who was 5-foot-7 in middle school and now stands 5-foot-11, knows moving forward that she and Richardson will remain friends – and friendly foes.
“She knows my moves, and I know hers,” Phillips said. “We play off of each other, and that always helps.”
Phillips added: “At least when we play against each other in college, I’ll know who I’m guarding.”
Added Richardson: “It’ll be good completion. But State’s going to win!”