When Tracey Tipton was promoted from assistant to head coach of the Collins Hill girls basketball team, she inherited plenty from previous coach Angie Hembree.
A rock-solid program. Arguably the nation's the No. 1 junior, Maya Moore.
Four players with starting experience.
But that wasn't all.
She also was given an unforgiving schedule, filled with tough non-region games (see home-and-home with Stephenson) and trips to the most challenging national tournaments. Not to mention the mountain of expectations built up by the success of Hembree, who took a college job at Miami, and her previous teams. USA Today only added to the hype, ranking Collins Hill second in the nation.
But the pressure of those expectations weren't solely on Tipton. It was on her assistant coaches and it was on her players.
That burden was lifted on Friday night at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. The Eagles defeated South Gwinnett 65-55, winning the program's fourth Class AAAAA state title in six years, but the first Hembree-less crown.
"I talked to those kids in there and it's amazing what we accomplished because of those expectations going into the season," Collins Hill assistant coach Scott Wild said. "There was a lot of pressure on Tracey as a head coach and there was a lot of pressure on those kids. I told my dad the other day that everybody expects it to be so easy for us. That we'll just walk out there and blow people out. But those kids bust their butts in practice every day."
Their final reward for working hard came on Friday, with the state's ultimate prize. But the season was full of other challenges. Although they rolled through the region, the Eagles had to fight it out in two national tourneys.
They made it through both with just one loss, a controversial one because Moore fouled out on a improperly assessed technical foul. And when the final horn sounded on Friday, their season ended at 31-1. The only loss to Christ the King (N.Y.), the nation's top-ranked team.
To make it through such a harsh schedule with only one loss is exceptional.
It's more impressive considering Collins Hill was facing the pressure of big-time expectations, carrying the burdens of high rankings and past successes along the way.
"You almost breathe a sigh of relief, you really do, because of the expectations," Wild said. "If we hadn't won tonight, they would have been extremely, extremely disappointed. Sure we're excited. This is the greatest feeling. But we're also breathing a sigh of relief."
Tipton may have breathed the biggest sigh. She admitted taking over for Hembree, a beloved coach who built Collins Hill into a state power, was the biggest challenge she had ever taken on.
But she didn't do it alone. She had the aforementioned group of talented players and she had coaches she trusted, including Wild, her right-hand man.
Yet even with everything in place like she wanted, the season still wasn't complete. It wasn't a success until Friday night's victory, one that put the program right back where Hembree left it.
"Winning tonight took a lot of pressure off," Tipton said. "I feel like I can finally relax and enjoy it for a little bit. Because we didn't want to let Collins Hill down. We didn't want to let these kids down. We just wanted to make sure we did what we had to do, leave no stone unturned. Because we realize talent like this doesn't come along very often. You want to do all you can when you have it."
Tipton and her assistants could finally smile on Friday night, knowing they had done just that.
Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His regular column appears on Thursdays.