DOTHAN — Alexis Hall based her decision more on who her coach would be rather than her new school’s girls basketball reputation.
The sordid recent history of the Sidney Lanier Poets — and much-worse adjectives would be accurate, too — didn’t sway Hall when faced with the enthusiasm and determination of new coach Courtney Ward.
Two years later, Lanier has enjoyed an epic turnaround.
Friday’s 53-44 win over defending state champion LeFlore in the Class 6A South Regional semifinals marked the latest surprise for a program that, so recently, was so very, very bad.
“I was told that it wasn’t good and it wasn’t the place to go,” Hall said. “But I saw she (Ward) wanted to change it around and I saw how passionate she was.”
Lanier, in the five years before Ward was hired, was a combined 3-100 with three winless seasons.
City teams considered the Poets an afterthought. In one embarrassing episode, Lanier mustered just two points against one city rival.
But Ward took the job in July 2015 with a one-word retort to those struggles: So?
“I didn’t care how many games they had won and lost. I barely knew who the coach was before me,” Ward said. “Me and my staff came in thinking about what we had to do.
“The past wasn’t what we focused on. It’s the past, so who cares? It’s over and done with.”
Two years later, Lanier beat each of its city rivals, sweeping all of them except for Robert E. Lee, and will play another in Tuesday’s 12:30 p.m. regional championship.
If the Poets (17-9) beat G.W. Carver for the fourth time this season, they’ll be in the state semifinals for just the third time in school history.
In 2005, behind star sophomore Kayla Melson, Lanier won its only state championship. (That year, Ward was a sophomore at Jeff Davis.) In 1983, Lanier lost to J.O. Johnson in the state finals.
“We’re better than what we used to be,” said junior Jamiya Smith, a first-year transfer from Calhoun. “I know we weren’t winning any games or anything like that.”
Ward said she sensed Lanier’s potential this season way before Hall had 16 points, Smith 15 and Shanya Brown 12 on Friday.
The Poets reached the final round of a summer team camp last year at Florida State — Ward’s alma mater. Lanier, after finishing 6-21 when Ward was a rookie, excelled this season.
“I knew they had it in them,” Ward said. “We just had to do our job getting it out of them.”
The Poets feel it, too.
“Since she came, we feel more like we have a coach that cares and someone to push us,” Brown said. “Everything is so much better now.”