Before Chantay Frost arrived at Columbia in 2009, the girls basketball program had qualified for the state playoffs six times since 1971 and lost in the first round each time.
Meanwhile, boys coach Phil McCrary has built that program into a state power and surpassed the 500-win milestone earlier this season.
Frost took over two years ago and matched the girls program’s record for wins in a single season with 23. The Eagles won two games in the state tournament that season and followed it with 27 wins and the program’s first state title in 2010.
The boys program won its third state basketball title last season and has been in the Final Four every year since 2006.
Both Eagles’ teams are back in the Final Four this season. The girls are 16-1 since making it through the Christmas break with an 8-5 record. They face No. 1 Washington County on March 11 in Macon in the Class AAA girls semifinals while the boys take on Eagle’s Landing in the semis the same night.
The Miller Grove boys made it to the Class AAAA semifinals and are trying to win their third straight state title. The Wolverines faced Jonesboro in one Final Four matchup on March 9.
These days, when folks talk about “Columbia basketball” they aren’t just referring to the boys team any more.
Like McCrary, Frost is dealing with the pressure that comes with annual expectations of a top program. That despite the return of only two players from last season’s team.
“We had some big names graduate so I think people thought we would drop off,” Frost said. “I think some people are surprised we’re still in the running. With the boys winning, we kind of feel the pressure from that, to try to keep up.”
The Columbia girls team has changed from a post-oriented team a year ago with 6-foot-4 Akila McDonald (now at the University of South Florida) to more of a perimeter team. But one thing that hasn’t changed is Frost’s focus on the importance of defense.
“We’ve paid a lot more attention to defense this season,” Frost said. “It’s a lot more important that people play their roles.”
Last year, Frost said, McDonald was able to be the last line of defense for the Eagles if their perimeter defense broke down. The Eagles don’t have that luxury this season.
“Everybody is a lot more accountable,” she said. The girls team is allowing only 33.6 points per game in the playoffs and they have given up more than 40 points only eight times in 30 games this season
McCrary always has had a defense-first mentality with his program and it consistently has paid dividends. The Eagles have allowed an average of 40.2 points per game during their current 11-game winning streak.
“We want to create offense off of our defense, and limit points and production of the opposition,” McCrary said. “To get teenagers to think like that –to defend first—is an attribute to our coaches.”
Both Columbia’s boys and girls teams are balanced this season, which would help them in their quest to repeat as state champions.
For the boys, Tahj Shamside-Deen, Algie Key, Jhaustin Thomas, Nate Mason and Chris Daniels have stepped up when needed. Balance on the girls team was evident in the win in the quarterfinals over Cartersville when Yaktavia Hickson scored 12 points and six other players scored at least six points.
“That’s one of our strengths,” Frost said. “It’s hard to target just one player this year.”