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North girls' steady climb to the top nearly complete

Photo by: Brendan Sullivan North Gwinnett seniors Keniesha Wilborn (24), Lexie Brown (4), Peyton Whitted (25) and Oma Nkele (21) are helping lead the Lady Bulldogs girls basketball team into the state finals for the first time in school history.

Photo by: Brendan Sullivan North Gwinnett seniors Keniesha Wilborn (24), Lexie Brown (4), Peyton Whitted (25) and Oma Nkele (21) are helping lead the Lady Bulldogs girls basketball team into the state finals for the first time in school history.

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Photo by: Brendan Sullivan North Gwinnett seniors Lexie Brown, left, Peyton Whitted and the Lady Bulldogs will take on Norcross during the state finals in Macon Saturday.

SUWANEE -- History is a major theme for all of the five remaining Gwinnett County teams in the state high school basketball tournament.

But while the task for both the boys and girls teams at Norcross, plus the Greater Atlanta Christian boys and Wesleyan girls, is adding to history, the goal for North Gwinnett's girls is very different.

The Bulldogs want to establish some school history when they take to the floor at the Macon Centreplex in the Class AAAAAA state championship game against Norcross on Saturday.

North made a little bit of history when it beat North Cobb 57-40 in last Saturday's semifinal game at Georgia Tech -- the program's first victory in its fourth Final Four appearance.

But coach Bryan Sellers and the Bulldogs know there is still one big step to go in order claim the program's first state championship, and join North's 1985, 1988 and 1989 softball teams, the 2009 girls cross country team and the 2010 girls soccer team as title winners.

"Winning a state championship was a goal we set a long time ago," Sellers said. "Being able to get over that hump of winning that semifinal game was the necessary step in having the opportunity to reach the goal we set many months ago. It's exciting to be here, but we're not satisfied by just being here. That wasn't our goal, just to make the championship game. It's to win it."

Still, it's hard not to look back at the gradual steps the Bulldogs (29-1 this season) have taken to get to this point, particularly for seniors Lexie Brown, Peyton Whitted, Keniesha Wilborn and Oma Nkele.

All were sophomores when Sellers came in as coach three years ago, though both Brown and Whitted were also new to the program after transferring from Dr. Phillips in Orlando, Fla., and GAC respectively.

"That was my first year as a head coach, as well," Sellers said. "We all kind of came in (at the same time). This group of seniors, we all kind of came in together. So, as far as learning each other and getting my feet wet as a head coach, we've all kind of grown together."

While they all hoped they could be a part of something special -- especially the duo of Whitted and Brown, who had each played for a Final Four team that was eliminated in the semifinals at their previous schools -- even they found it hard to imagine the heights the North program would reach.

"Every day (this week), I've been thinking about it," admitted Brown, who has signed to play college ball at Maryland. "Saturday's getting closer and closer. I remember the first day I stepped on this campus. I was like, 'What is going to happen here?' I was new. I didn't know anybody.

"It was crazy how I even ended up at this school. When we first moved up here, the goal was GAC. Then there was Buford. Then as school got closer, I (still) wasn't enrolled anywhere. We lived near North Gwinnett, so we were like, 'Let's just go here.' The three years have gone by very quickly. It's been the most amazing three years. I couldn't ask for a better three years with this team or Coach Sellers."

Still, North's ascension to be among the elite programs in the state, and the nation, has been a slow, gradual process.

In addition to claiming a share of the region title each of the last three seasons, the Bulldogs steadily climbed the ladder, going from 19-10 and a first-round state participant the year before Sellers took over to a second-round state appearance as sophomores, to the first Final Four appearance since 1963 a year ago.

"This (program was) very good when I came, but they had some missing pieces, and I felt like I could come in and help with that," said the Penn State-bound Whitted. "We were regular season region champs and made it to the Sweet Sixteen (that season), and each year, we've had a bigger role. I'm just glad to be a part of it."

And even as the Bulldogs stand on the brink of their first state finals appearance, Sellers says it's easy to look back at certain turning points, aided by the four seniors and several key underclassmen, that guided them down their current path.

"The game that really fueled us was when we went down to Kendrick (in December, 2010) when we got our butts whipped," Sellers recalled. "That kind of was a look yourself in the mirror moment for me as a coach and us as a team. We went on a 19-game winning streak from that point. When you start out 1-5 as a head coach, you start questioning yourself.

"Our trip to Florida, going down to Naples (Holiday Shootout this past December) and playing in a national tournament against teams you haven't seen before and have national recognition really kind of signified to us that we're a pretty good team. We figured we were a decent team around here, but this kind of compared us to people outside of our bubble."

It is a foe well within North's bubble -- region rival and two-time state champion Norcross -- that is all that stands in the Bulldogs' way of their elusive state title.

But while Brown acknowledges the Blue Devils will provide the same formidable challenge they have throughout her career -- though North does have a 5-4 lead in the series with Norcross over that time -- playing them will have at least one benefit.

Taking on a familiar foe could lessen the inevitable nerves the Bulldogs will face in playing on the state's biggest stage for the first time.

"I can definitely say that in the North Cobb game (last weekend), we were real nervous because we really didn't know what to expect," Brown said. "At least we know what to expect with Norcross -- who's going to try and score all the points, who's going to try and get all the rebounds.

"The atmosphere at Georgia Tech (for the semifinals last weekend) was amazing, and I'm pretty sure the atmosphere in Macon is going to be amazing. But we've been in the Gwinnett Arena before, so we should be OK."