After just missing the field last season, members from Triton's girls basketball team discuss breaking into the 3A bracket for the first time since 2017.
ERWIN — Despite winning nine of its first 10 games during the shortened 2020-21 season, Triton’s girls basketball team fell just short of a state playoff selection.
It’s a moment that still stings senior starter Tristan Ennis.
But the memory became less hurtful this past weekend when the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) added her Lady Hawks to the 32-team 3A East bracket, marking Ennis’ first postseason trip and the team’s first since 2017.
“That one (2020-21 season) was tough ... so, I’m grateful for the opportunity this year,” Ennis said following a semifinal matchup of the All American Conference tournament on Feb. 16.”
“I couldn’t have a better group of girls to do it with — we’re a family.”
The 10-3 bunch last season finished third in the former Tri-County 3A Conference, consequently branding itself alongside the last teams out.
First-year Triton (15-7) coach Richard Rozier has benefited from a full-sized field this season, allowing veterans like Ennis to form a “sisterhood” with talented newcomers.
“It’s a mentality, I think, transitioning from a basketball team to a basketball program,” Rozier said following the 71-59 loss to eventual AAC champion and 3A East top seed Terry Sanford.
“That’s what I wanted to bring to Triton, the idea of having a program and uplifting these young ladies, not just as basketball players but as women. ... You have to put others before you, especially in a family.
“And I always tell them, ‘You have to unconditionally love each other — through turnovers, bad shots ... to be a good basketball program.’ And that’s what we’re doing.”
Ennis, who serves as the team’s proverbial pulse, has seen her offensive role change this year with the addition of freshmen starters JaNiah Smith and Unique Cooke.
Smith leads the group in scoring, while Cooke has a team-leading 10.9 rebounds per game and ranks third in points.
“We got a lot of young ones willing to learn. I think that plays a lot into it. Even towards the end of the season, we’re still getting better — still working,” Ennis said, likening the chemistry to puzzle pieces.
Taking over as the Lady Hawks’ new floor general, Smith has shown flashes of brilliance — dropping a career-high 34 points in the semifinal loss to Terry Sanford — but has also struggled at times.
She credits the leadership of experienced veterans to keep her grounded when adversity hits.
“They had my back. I had a bunch of bad games, but they kept telling me, ‘You got this. Keep going,’” Smith said.
“They play a big part of this team, too. It’s just like, we all come together and we do our thing.”
Abby Hood and A’Shari Watlington were Triton’s first- and second-leading scorers, respectively, last year. Each player has allowed more opportunities for the youngsters while still coming through in key moments.
Watlington, averaging just over 10 points, is thankful for Smith and the newcomers in helping them take a step further, as she did as a freshman last season.
“It was kind of shocking. I felt like we were definitely a good enough team to make last year,” Watlington said.
“This team is really special to me. ... I knew we could make it to the playoffs, so it’s not really a shock. I’m really excited and thankful for the team I have.”
Rozier’s group started the campaign as Bennie Pollock Memorial Tournament champions, marking Triton’s first Harnett County title since the playoff-bound 2016 season.
Though having to endure various challenges and “tough conversations” along the way, Rozier is optimistic of his squad’s chances this week after going 4-2 through the last six games.
“There’s been a lot of mental tests, physical tests and emotional tests but we powered through it,” he said. “And I’m happy we’re in this position, and we’re just enjoying the ride and living in the moment.”
Triton opens first-round play on the road Tuesday against Fike, with tip-off scheduled for 6 p.m.
Donnell Coley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-230-2040.