Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Norcross junior Diamond DeShields is named the Gwinnett Daily Post's girls basketball player of the year.
NORCROSS -- Diamond DeShields already had proven her toughness and mental maturity many times throughout her high school basketball career.
But this season provided more challenges to both the physical and emotional fortitude of the Norcross junior than she had ever experienced.
And while the Blue Devils came up short of their ultimate goal of a third consecutive Class AAAAA state championship, DeShields was more than up to the task of meeting those challenges -- enough to be the Daily Post's girls player of the year for the second straight season.
"I think she took more of a leadership role with her teammates (this year)," Norcross coach Angie Hembree said. "The fact that she played through the injuries she played through at the end of the year, I think, (is) a huge statement about how much she cares about her teammates and how much she wanted to ... be a part of the team and help them."
Indeed, injuries were perhaps the biggest obstacles DeShields and the Blue Devils had to overcome during a season in which her numbers were as good as ever. She averaged 21.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game despite missing more than three weeks of the season.
The injuries didn't define DeShields' season. How she dealt with them did.
"I've always been a tough kid physically," DeShields said. "I feel like this year was more of a mental thing for me."
That test began Jan. 17, when she suffered a fractured left wrist during an important Region 7-AAAAA game against fellow Final Four participant North Gwinnett.
Despite being injured in the first quarter, the 6-foot-1 wing played the remainder of the game using only her right hand, and scored 12 points in a 48-37 Norcross win.
"I knew something was wrong when I went to shoot my free throws, and I couldn't grasp the ball," DeShields said. "But I wasn't worried about that. I was worried about winning the game. So, I had to stay out there for my team."
But she with her left wrist and hand in a cast, she was forced to miss the next eight games over the next three and a half weeks.
It was a situation she had never had to face before in her career.
"This was really the first major broken bone that I had," DeShields said. "When the told me (the wrist) was broken, I was like, 'So? I played last night, (and) I'm going to keep playing.' (The doctors and training staff) were like, 'You've got to sit out.'
"Coach (Hembree) was like, 'It's not going to start hurting until you have to watch a game.' ... Sure enough, we played Mill Creek (on Feb. 7) and we lost. It hurt me so bad that I wanted to be out there helping."
While several of DeShields' teammates -- like Shayla Cooper, Patrice Butler, Jasmine Kemp, Bri Williams and Tori Carter, among others -- stepped up to help Norcross stay afloat with a 6-2 record during her absence, she knew she would be needed as the Blue Devils tried to make another run at a state title.
So she toughed it out as the wrist continued to heel and returned to the line up with a molded splint on her wrist, and continued at her normal level of play, averaging about 18 points, nine rebounds, four assists and five steals per game after coming back.
And her return while still in pain set a strong example of toughness and confidence that carried over to her teammates.
"We took (DeShields' absence) as an opportunity for the other kids to step up, ... and I think for the most part, they did that," Hembree said. "Having Diamond come back, I think they were excited about having her come back, but it also made them feel like they'd gotten better."
But there were more examples of DeShields toughness to come.
Early in Norcross' meeting with then undefeated Parkview in the state quarterfinals, DeShields charged after a loose ball over the end line and collided with a photographer and the basket stanchion.
She struggled to get to her feet, but it was more than the blood trail on the floor from the cuts above her right eye and on her right ear -- which would eventually require stitches -- that became a concern.
"I got up, went to start walking and ... got a little light-headed and went back down," DeShields admitted. "I knew that if I stayed on the floor for too long, I was not going to be able to play. So, I had to get up and walk as straight as I could right to the bench."
She eventually would shake off the cobwebs and return to contribute 17 points, six rebounds and two assists as the Blue Devils moved into the Final Four for the third straight season.
The toughness she displayed battling through the injuries should help her deal with a senior season that will be filled with plenty of pressure.
In addition to trying to help Norcross wrest the state title back from McEachern, DeShields will be pulled in many directions as she makes a decision on her college future, as she is currently narrowed her list of favorites down to Tennessee, Connecticut, North Carolina, Duke and Maryland.
"Every year has gotten tougher and tougher," DeShields said. "I wouldn't expect next year to be any different. As a senior. I refuse to lose. That's going to be our mindset because we know how it feels."