Bulldogs work together to win conference title

Coach Lin Smithson admits she didn't know how good her Jay M. Robinson girls' basketball team could be this year.

Having lost South Piedmont Conference Player of the Year Kelsee Cheek, Smithson had to adjust - shifting to an up-tempo style of play that allowed her Bulldogs to win the South Piedmont 3A regular-season title.

"I had several people tell me, 'You're not going to be anything without Kelsee,' " Smithson recalls. "It's kind of scary when you lose a player like that after four years, but in the spring, I started looking around and thought, 'Wait a minute, I am going to have a team.' It was just about finding the right game for them to play."

This season, the scoring load hasn't been on just one player. Instead, Robinson has received contributions from up and down its roster.

"We work as a team the whole time," said leading scorer Izzy Bernal.

"This time it's about all five of us on the court. It's all of us looking at each other - not playing as individual. That's why we're a better team."

Bernal along with fellow senior Desiree Gray and freshman newcomer Kelsi Mahoney have stepped up and have made an impact.

Bernal, also an all-conference soccer player, leads the team with her vision, finding her open teammates from her point guard role.

"She plays wide open," said Smithson. "You never know what she's going to do. She plays with everything she's got."

The 17-year-old shooter has averaged 11.8 points per game heading into the SPC tournament final against Hickory Ridge last Friday. Bernal is closely followed by Gray, who averages 11 points a game. Smithson said the 5-foot-3 guard stands out with her speed.

"She plays like a fire ball," said Smithson. "She runs the offense when I need her to. She doesn't quit."

The 14-year-old Mahoney, a forward, has been a solid addition to the team. Smithson said her all-around game has been impressive.

"Kelsi certainly doesn't play like a freshman," said Smithson. "She plays with a lot of confidence and a lot of strength."

Mahoney, who credits her teammates for a lot of her success, said the Bulldogs have been able to have a good year because of their cohesiveness.

"That's what we really needed for this team to be successful," said Mahoney. "Hard work pays off, but you have to have chemistry between teammates."

Although the team has six seniors on its roster, Robinson doesn't have as much experience as that would normally indicate, as many of the girls have had to play behind older players in the past.

"To be honest, I never expected us to be as good as we are," said Smithson.

She added that the team's depth has been a key in their success.

"We found out early on in the season that there are going to be nights were some people are cold, but we have people who can take over," said Smithson.

Daylin Leftwich and Sydni Bickford, who hit a then-school record six 3-pointers against South Rowan, have also played well for the Bulldogs.

Having struggled to be in the top of their former conference, the defunct MECA 4A, and going against loaded Concord teams since joining the SPC, Smithson said winning the regular-season title meant a lot for her and the program.

"I've been here seven years at Robinson and this is the first conference title I've won as a varsity coach," she said. "I'm thrilled for the girls - for all the girls who've played at Robinson. Slowly but surely, we built this team to what it is. There are kids I texted the other night, who graduated three and four years ago, and I told them 'We did it. We won it.'"

Bernal will also cherish that championship.

"We can leave here proudly with whatever happens in the end," she said. "We left something to show for on this court."

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