Chelsea’s historic season ends in Final Four

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

BIRMINGHAM – It didn’t end the way they hoped, but a few years ago, the way it ended wasn’t even fathomable.

When Chelsea’s girls basketball team took to the floor inside Bartow Arena on Monday, March 1, the Hornets did so in the Final Four for the first time in school history.

And despite a 41-28 loss to Carver-Montgomery to come up one game short of the Class 6A State Championship game, it was a moment that set the stage for the future of the program, and the group of players that were out there will be remembered as the ones who did it.   

“I’m just really proud of my kids for what they did all year long,” head coach Jason Harlow said. “We’re all hurting right now. It’s not the outcome we wanted. But ultimately, I think we’ll look back on this and be very proud of the accomplishments over the course of the year. I just love my kids and I’m really proud of them.”

It was an impressive senior class that helped paved the way for the historic year, as the Hornets were led by Mackenzie Titus, Ellen Fleming, Mary Cartee and Mary Henley for much of the year.

Throw in other starters like juniors Sydney Schwallie, Ashley Washington, Nia Cummings and Sophia Brown, who all either started or played important minutes, and you had a team primed for history from the start.

But just four ago, the Hornets totaled five wins and making the playoffs, much less the Final Four, wasn’t in the foreseeable future.

Harlow, however, quickly turned the program around when he entered the picture three years ago. Each year has been a step in the right direction.

Now, after the first Final Four in school history, boys or girls, and a school record 27 wins, four years ago is a distant memory.

“We’ve come a long way since a few years ago,” Schwallie said. “It’s been an honor to play for this team with my best friends and these good coaches and to go as far as we can the past few years.”

While Schwallie is returning next year, the same can’t be said for Titus and others, who played their final game on Tuesday.

“I want to thank every single one of them,” the senior said of her teammates, fighting through tears. “When I moved here, I wasn’t planning on playing basketball and coach brought me back. And these girls have never said one harsh word to me and have been so supportive. I want to thank them.”

Chelsea got off to a good start despite the turnover bug early thanks in large part to the example Titus set on the floor.

She came out and didn’t let the bright lights and big stage get to her, as the senior scored the first five points for Chelsea and helped the Hornets jump out to a 5-2 lead following three free throws and a layup.

Shortly after, Fleming drained a 3-pointer to make it 8-4.

But Carver found a rhythm late in the opening quarter that Chelsea struggled to respond to.

The Rams came back to tie the game at 8-8, but the Hornets were still able to escape the opening period with the lead when Mary Cartee knocked down a layup with a strong post move late in the quarter to make it 10-8.

Carver, however, was starting to capitalize on several Chelsea turnovers, which led to a run.

On the first possession of the quarter, the Wolverines hit a 3-pointer off of Chelsea’s ninth turnover of the game to take their first lead of the afternoon.

That was just the start of what became an 11-2 run to put Carver in front 15-10.

Schwallie hit a jumper to cut the deficit back to three points at 15-12, but Carver responded with a 7-0 run, which was part of an 18-6 run dating back to the end of the first quarter.

That put the Wolverines in front by 10 points. Brown hit a basket in the post to cut it to eight, but that wasn’t enough to prevent a 10-point deficit at the half as Carver came back with a layup to make it 24-14.

Early in the second half, Carver continued its successful stretch with another 4-0 run to extend its lead to 14 points, but Chelsea continued to play defense and battle in the game despite offensive struggles.

Brown was able to score three quick points at the free throw line before Titus added another one to make it 28-18 late in the quarter.

To that point, the Chelsea defense had forced 20 turnovers and continued to keep the Hornets in the game.

“I thought defensively, we were strong at times, but shots didn’t fall and that’s a credit to them,” Harlow said. “Carver did a good job defensively on us.”

At the end of the quarter, however, Harlow, who had been frustrated with several no calls under the basket, got a technical foul following another take to the basket with no whistle.

That allowed Carver to add one more point on a free throw before the period ended, which put the Wolverines in front 29-18.

Chelsea fell behind by 15 early in the final quarter, and the battle back against a difficult defense became too much. The Hornets got as close as 13 on a Swchwallie 3-pointer, but that’s as close as they could get in the final quarter.

The Hornets were led by Brown and Titus with seven points each, while Scwhallie and Fleming added five each with Schwallie leading the team on the boards with four rebounds.

The defense went on to force 24 turnovers and held Carver to 40 percent from the floor on 16-40 shooting, but the offense was 8-40 from the floor and had 15 turnovers. The Wolverines also used their height to their advantage, outrebounding Chelsea 42-20.

It was a tough way for the season to end, but one the players already know is setting the foundation for an even brighter future.

“We hung with big teams all season. We played Spain Park, we played Vestavia, and we kept up with teams like that,” Titus said. “We didn’t play an easy schedule, yet we still came out with 27 wins. It was just having confidence in ourselves.

“I want them to not take this success for granted and keep working to get back here next year and prove people wrong.”

Harlow and Schwallie will miss the example set by the seniors from Harlow’s first year to now, but next year’s team will be the first the head coach has had coaching players for all four years, and they know the previous three years will only fuel a bright future.

“These seniors have laid an enormous foundation for us through hard work and made a lot of sacrifices along the way,” he said. “We talked to the younger girls and basically said it’s our responsibility now to build upon the foundation that they laid. We’ll get back to work and definitely try to do that.”