It was a historic championship moment for Rabun Gap athletics on Saturday at Wingate University.
The Lady Eagles basketball team clinched the NCISAA 4A state title with a close 36-33 win over North Raleigh Christian Academy. This is the first state championship title in the Rabun Gap girls basketball program history which dates back 50 years. It also marks the first state title for any girls team in school history and is Head Coach Dale Earnhardt’s first state championship in his 15 years at Rabun Gap.
“Any time one of our teams wins a championship, it is huge for our school,” said Earnhardt. “I am so proud of this team and the hard work they put in this season. This was our ninth Final Four and our fourth appearance in the state championship game in 15 years. I am so happy for these coaches, these young ladies, and our school, but also for all the former players who laid the foundation for what was accomplished on Saturday night.”
The championship game was a back-and-forth battle against the No. 3-ranked Lady Knights. Rabun Gap jumped ahead early, scoring the first four points of the game and finishing the first quarter 12-6 off a three-pointer by Tuana Coskun. The Lady Eagles held a narrow 16-14 lead at the end of the second quarter.
University of Louisville commit Imani Lester of North Raleigh proved to be a dominant force, but was no match for the Lady Eagles’ defense which held her to seven points and three rebounds. Earnhardt said Rabun Gap senior Victory Fredricks’ defense on Lester was key to the win, with several key blocks early in the game that set the tone.
Rabun Gap went on a 5-0 run to begin the second half, but NRCA answered to take the lead. A key three-pointer by Kornelia Ignerska gave Rabun Gap a 28-27 lead as they headed into the final quarter. She hit a deep three-pointer with four minutes remaining to put the Lady Eagles up 33-30, and Monna Julkunen sealed it 36-33 with the final three points scored.
“We stressed all season that championships are won by taking care of the little details,” said Earnhardt. "It was true Saturday. The attention to details proved to be the difference. Executing those two late-quarter possessions into successful threes was big for us.”
Strong defense and excellent rebounding propelled Rabun Gap to the title. The Lady Eagles held NRCA to 26 percent from the floor and out-rebounded the Lady Knights 35-26. Rabun Gap logged 12 offensive rebounds.
The gym erupted with excitement at the final buzzer as players, coaches, and fans rushed the court to celebrate the historic moment.
This year’s girls basketball team has a lot to celebrate after a monumental season. The girls finished the season 23-6 and were undefeated at home. The Lady Eagles had a nine-game winning streak to close out the season after a huge 48-47 victory over Rabun County, which Earnhardt called the turning point of the season. Earnhardt said the team exemplified its motto - “Enjoy the Journey” - from day one.
“They worked extremely hard in the weight room and on the track during the fall to prepare for the season. We were as prepared to start the season as any team I have coached in the past,” he said.
Earnhardt praised the hard work of his two seniors, Ana Baptista and Fredricks.
“Both played a huge role for us this season. Ana served as a captain, played a variety of positions on this team, and was the glue to keep us together no matter what happened on the court,” said Earnhardt. “Victory is an excellent rebounder and defender. She averaged over 10 rebounds per game for the season and had over 50 blocked shots. We were an excellent defensive team this year and most of it was because Victory protected the basket so our guards could pressure and take chances.”
It will be the second state championship trophy to come home to Rabun Gap this school year and the third in school history. The boys soccer program won its first state championship last October. Prior to 2021, the last school state championship was won in 1985 by boys cross country.
Members of the 2022 state championship girls basketball team include Ece Arabacioglu ’23 of Istanbul, Turkey; Ana Catarina Baptista ’22 of London, UK; Francesca Cergol ’23 of Brooklyn, NY; Tuana Coşkun ’23 of Istanbul, Turkey; Victory Fredricks’22 of Lagos, Nigeria; Kornelia Ignerska ’24 of Poznan, Poland; Monna Julkunen ’24 of Vantaa, Finland; Vivian Ross '23 of Cherokee, NC; Angelica Vanflorcke ’24 of Sapphire, NC; and Mia Wilson ’23 of Murphy, NC. Assistant coaches were Dustin Barnes, Morgan Neisweinder, and Weston Willard.