Spain Park advances to 3rd state championship game in 4 years

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

BIRMINGHAM – During her freshman season, Spain Park’s Sarah Ashlee Barker hit a 3-pointer with three seconds left in her first state championship appearance against the Hoover Buccaneers back on March 4, 2017, that forced overtime.

The Jaguars went on to lose that game 51-47, and while they came back to win the championship a year later 56-26, it came against McGill-Toolen and there always seemed to be unfinished business between Barker and the Bucs.

Now, almost four years later, Spain Park and Barker will get another crack at Hoover for a state championship this Saturday, Feb. 29, after coincidentally taking down McGill-Toolen 48-35 in the semifinals on Thursday, Feb. 27.

“What’s better than playing your rival team in a state championship game? Nothing,” Barker asked and answered immediately. “That’s the team that you want to play.”

It will mark the perfect bookend to the senior’s career before heading to the University of Georgia, as she looks to overcome the only unfinished business left on her agenda.

She’s getting that opportunity because of another strong second half she put together against McGill-Toolen, posting 17 points in the second half to score a game-high 26 and help the Jaguars overcome a slow first half.

Up by just two at the break, 19-17, Barker came out in the third quarter and scored six points on 3-4 shooting from the field an dcontinued to get help from teammate Avery Masdon, who posted five points.

Those two helped the Jags post a game best 15 points in the quarter and extend the lead by 34-29 lead into the final quarter of play.

That’s when Barker took over.

She not only hit a 3-pointer early to create separation, but with the lead, she was able to be a bit more aggressive and earn trips to the free throw line.

Masdon posted two free throws and Alanah Pooler one free throw in the final quarter, but Barker scored the other 11 points in the quarter thanks to an 8-10 mark from the free throw line. That helped the Jags take what was a close game for three quarters and pull away by as many as 15 in the fourth quarter, before closing out the win.

“You can’t get frustrated when you’re not playing well,” Barker said of her first half struggles where she shot 3-9 from the field and had just nine points. “It’s a four quarter game and you have to keep that in your mind. It’s also a new venue we haven’t played at in more than a year.”

Barker also eluded to Masdon’s performance and how it helped keep the team together despite some offensive struggles in the first half.

Masdon was consistent throughout and finished the game with seven in the first half and seven in the second half for a total of 14 points. She shot 4-8 from the field, but more impressively, she went 4-5 from the free throw line, which caught head coach Mike Chase’s attention.”

“I know Avery is playing well when she’s making free throws,” Chase said with a laugh after.

“The farther these games go, the more pressure that’s on Sarah Ashlee because she’s our best player,” Masdon said. “I can’t put all my trust in her though. I’ve got to step up, I’ve got to be there for her when she’s not there. It doesn’t scare me, but I’ve got to get myself confidence to be able to play how I know I can play.”

Masdon also had three rebounds to add to her 14 points, while Barker finished with another double-double thanks to 10 rebounds. In addition to those two, Hailey Russell added four points and four rebounds with two steals, while MacKenzie Culpepper added four rebounds. Pooler and Stephanie Tooson added three rebounds each.

Now, the Jags are headed to the Class 7A State Championship game for the third time in the last four years where they’ll look for redemption against Hoover.

“We prepare for Hoover 365,” Chase said. “Everything we do in all of our practices is geared for Hoover, and that’s just how it is. The last couple of years, I feel like we’ve been the two premier 7A teams in the state. So when we do stuff in the weight room, when we do stuff in the summer, it is “Is this going to work against Hoover?’ I don’t know what their mindset is, but that’s ours.”

The two teams met twice during the regular season with Hoover winning 56-32 on Dec. 6, 2019, and the Jags pulling off the upset 61-56 in the final regular season game of the season on Jan. 31.

“In that first game, six of our 11 players are freshmen or sophomores,” Chase said. “When we went to Hoover, they weren’t ready to play. It was close in the first half, but they punched us in the mouth in the second half.”

But Chase eluded to his team’s difficult schedule throughout the season that featured several Final Four teams in the state and some of the best teams from other states as well.

“By the time that last game of the season rolled around, these guys weren’t freshmen and sophomores anymore,” he said.

Now, Spain Park has the belief that it can win as a team, and they have a senior in Barker that wants nothing more than to go out with a championship win over her rival.