Staff Photo: John Boh Wesleyan girls basketball head coach Jan Azar with her players outside of Yancey Gymnasium. Azar has built this girls basketball program, as their only head coach.
MACON -- As strong as the girls basketball programs at Wesleyan and Buford have been in recent years, Saturday's state championship slate at the Macon Centreplex almost seemed like the end of an era.
It was, in the literal sense, for Buford, which had its run of three straight Class AA state titles broken with a 52-42 loss to Lovett.
But even with Wesleyan claiming its ninth title in the last 11 years with a 68-44 win over Southwest Atlanta Christian in the Class A finals, change was in the air.
That's because both teams bearing the green and gold colors and Wolves nicknames will be moving up in classification beginning in the fall.
"I know some people think it's like a given that Wesleyan's going to be here every year, but it's a team effort and we worked hard to get here," said Wesleyan forward Holli Wilkins, who had 19 points and eight rebounds in the Wolves' title-game win. "It feels great we sent (the seniors) off with a win."
Nobody within either program expects the transition to new classifications to be effortless.
Wesleyan (29-4) will become the smallest school in the new Class AA, and will be placed in the same region as newly-crowned state champion Lovett, as well as perennial power and Norcross rival Greater Atlanta Christian.
Buford (25-8), meanwhile, moves up to Class AAA, where state runner-up Washington County -- which had a 63-game winning streak snapped in Saturday's title-game loss to Columbia -- and other powerhouses like St. Pius X await to challenge the Wolves.
Yet, people involved in both programs also have plenty of reasons to expect they will pick up where they left off as elite programs on the statewide level.
For example, Wesleyan has already been ultra-successful as a Class AA team, with four of their nine titles since 2002 coming at that classification.
And while the Wolves lose four important seniors from this year's championship team, the continuity and depth that was on display Saturday -- including Wilkins' big day, plus 20 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocked shots from Katie Frerking and six points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots from Kaelyn Causwell -- have made them a mainstay on Championship Saturday in Macon.
But it is work ethic that coach Jan Azar believes is the key her team working its way back to Macon again once it moves up next year.
"We expect to make it to Macon (every year), but we don't see it as a given to us. We have to work for that," Azar said. "But these girls have played together for so long, we think that's a reason that why these four seniors will all go on to play in college, but our plan is that our juniors and our younger players will step up into (new) roles."
For Buford, the move up to Class AAA next year will give the Wolves, who return four of their five starters, a chance to eliminate the bad taste in their mouths left by Saturday's loss.
And while coach Gene Durden does not believe his team was complacent or overconfident after winning three straight state titles in Class AA, he did express a belief that the loss -- combined with the move up -- could be a re-energizing boost for his team next season.
"It will be a new start," Durden said. "It will be a new situation. Maybe this will light a fire underneath us to work harder and get back to playing Buford style."
That said, Durden was proud of the effort his Wolves gave not only Saturday, but throughout the season, as they battled a plethora of injuries to key players like Andraya Carter, who missed more than half the season with a knee injury and played the last few weeks of the state tournament with a dislocated shoulder, Kristina Nelson (shoulder) and MacKenzie Darrah (hip).
He admitted those injuries, plus some early-season struggles with a brutal non-region schedule, created a different atmosphere around the team that he felt in Saturday's title game.
While a big fourth quarter from Kaela Davis (nine of her team-high 14 points) gave the Wolves a chance, they spent most of the game playing from behind, which seemed to create an air of uncertainty against a Lovett team they had beaten twice earlier in the season, including a 45-39 win in the Region 6-AA title game.
"We're the team that (had) the most experience. I thought we'd be more relaxed," Durden said. "We looked like the pressure was more on us, but that's another thing that comes with the situation. When you have been (to the championship game) so many times and you're expected to win, that's a lot of pressure for 16- and 17-year-old kids.
"I think the region championship game gave Lovett a lot of confidence because we struggled against them, and with a team like that which has as many weapons as they do, you can't play around. You've got to go in and play your best basketball. The other thing with this team is, we have had such a physical and mental drain the whole season long. We were trying to struggle to get through, and I think it just caught up with us."