By Blake Ells
Spain Park won its first girls basketball state championship March 3 in dominating fashion – a 56-26 victory over McGill-Toolen Catholic from Mobile.
McGill-Toolen made just nine field goals against a team that had been preparing for that moment.
The Jaguars were led by senior Claire Holt, who had 20 points, five rebounds and four steals. She knocked down three 3-pointers and was 5-of-5 at the foul line in an effort that earned her tournament MVP.
“She had a good final four,” said head coach Mike Chase. “We played (in the final four) last year, and she played well for us in both games. She had a really good comfort level; shooting and playing in that gym. Last year’s experience definitely helped us this year.”
Sarah Ashlee Barker added 12 points, nine rebounds, two assists, three steals and a blocked shot.
A year ago, crosstown rival Hoover defeated the Jaguars 51-47 in overtime. But this year, many of the same girls were able to redeem themselves at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. Two of them – Holt and Barker, just a sophomore – were named to the Girls 7A All-Tournament Team.
Spain Park built a difficult schedule around Birmingham this season that prepared them for the run and the dominating performance in the championship. Ramsay prepared the Jags; so did the Bucs.
“If you’re trying to get wins or you’re new to the system, you may not want to go out and schedule Ramsay three times, or Hoover or Hazel Green or LeFlore or these guys,” said Chase. “But I’ve been here long enough that we want to try to win a state championship. And if we’re going to try to win a state championship, we need to play the absolute toughest teams we can play, so that we don’t get into the playoffs and we don’t see something in the playoffs that we haven’t seen in a game.
“I wanna see teams that are athletic. I wanna see teams that are disciplined. I wanna see teams that press. I wanna see teams that play man. I wanna see teams that play us in a zone. I wanna see teams with really good point guards. I wanna see teams with real teams with really good post players. So when we get to play a team like McGill – somebody that we don’t normally see – and they’ve got a really good point guard, we’ve already played 10 girls that are as good or better than her. We’ve already figured out how we’re gonna guard her. Because we had success against Jayla Crawford from Huffman or Caitlin Hose from Hazel Green.”
Chase has been the head coach at Spain Park for nine years. He’d spent a couple of years at Clay-Chalkville before taking over in 2009. He wasn’t always sure that this path would take him to the first girls basketball state championship in Spain Park history, but he was sure that he wanted to coach. And he is happy that it’s here.
“In ‘98, I was living in Florida and a girls basketball job opened up and the AD came to me and asked me if I would be interested in doing it,” said Chase. “I was like, ‘Heck yeah.’ So I’ve been a girls basketball coach for 22 years. If it would have been a boys job 20 years ago, I’d probably be coaching boys. If someone would have come up and offered me a football coaching job 20 years ago, I might have never been a basketball coach. I might have been a football coach for 20 years. It just worked out that way.”
Chase coached two teams at Clay-Chalkville to the AHSAA State Championship, and this was his first at Spain Park.
He has yet to take a day off; one day after his state championship, he’s in the gym practicing with his AAU team. Spain Park’s girls will technically get a two-week break, but their coach has no intentions of slowing down.
“Every coach out there wants to win a state championship,” said Chase. “If coaching was just about building relationships, then we would all coach upward basketball, because what would it matter? But when you win, the relationships become stronger. You’ve accomplished something together. I don’t buy into the idea that coaches coach for relationships. I want to win. I want to win a state championship. I’m at the gym right now because I know people are going to be coming for us next year.”
Spain Park’s girls will take two weeks off to celebrate; catch up on school work, get to work with their AAU teams. Then they’ll hit the gym with coach Chase and focus on repeating. ❖