Despite a hard-fought loss Saturday, the Dawson County High School Lady Tigers returned to Dawsonville with their heads held high, proud of their second-place finish and knowing they gave it their all.
Senior Kenna Seitz described the season, which ended with Saturday's 77-55 loss to St. Pius X in the state Class AAA championship, as a "Cinderella story that almost came true."
"I'm just really happy to be able to enjoy the moment with these girls. It is a blessing and something that doesn't happen often. It happens once in a blue moon. We made it as far as we could, and I'm really happy," she said.
Seitz was among six seniors to play their last high school game on Saturday.
Lady Tigers Carly Gilreath, Hannah Porter, Whitney Glover, Allie Costly and Kacie Bearden will also graduate in May.
"I'm glad I got to spend my senior year like this," Porter said. "I can't believe it's over."
Glover called the experience "the best season of my whole high school career," while Costley said she "couldn't think of a better way" to end her senior year.
Playing in their first state championship game since 1991, the Lady Tigers said they are indebted to their legion of loyal fans, who followed the team throughout the season and then made the trek first to Savannah for the Final Four game against Southwest Macon and on Saturday to Macon for the state championship.
"I just want to thank all the fans for all the support and everybody that came out and supported us.
Obviously, you can tell from tonight that we have more fans than anybody," Gilreath said.
A sea of maroon shirts sporting "we believe" lined the Macon Centreplex to cheer on the Lady Tigers, who finished the season with a 27-6 record.
"I want to thank all the fans and all the students that traveled God knows how many miles to come to our games. They traveled a long way to support us and at the end of the game, even though we were losing, they were still standing up cheering," Bearden said. "Even when they [St. Pius] were up 20 points, they were supporting us and cheering us and never gave up on us, which I think is something a lot of counties don't have - that same support."
Each school in the county also held pep rallies on Friday to send off their beloved Lady Tigers.
"All the support we've been getting from the community, it's been a wonderful experience," Costley said.
The seniors also thanked their teammates for the excitement, camaraderie and memories they said they will cherish for the rest of their lives.
"I'm really thankful for my teammates," Costley said. "I'm going to miss everybody and miss playing with them."
Porter agreed as she reflected on the season and the years the team has played together.
"We've been playing since park and rec, and I'm just going to miss everybody. I just want to say I love everyone," she said.
For many of the 2013 Lady Tigers, the state championship runners-up first played together on park and recreation teams as young girls. Their history together has been part of the chemistry that makes them great, according to assistant coach Anne Hyams.
"It's so important to have great chemistry. I can honestly say, I hate to see this year end, and I hate to see the six seniors go because they have just contributed so much to this program," she said. "The team bonding, the unity, I think that's what carried us such a long way this year."
Freshman Karlie Bearden turned 15 on Saturday, and while a win would have been the perfect birthday present, she praised her teammates and rallied the returning players.
"I just love all my teammates and I thank them for everything, for being there for me and being there for each other," she said. "Next year, we're going to have a younger team, but I think we can really step up and do the same we did this year or hopefully better."
Glover said she "can't wait to come back and watch them all play next year."