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That Championship Season

June 30, 2007

By Brad Milner


Two coaches were thrust into the sometimes imposing world of junior college athletics and came out champions. Instead of falling apart and crawling back to the comfort zone of high school competition, Belinda Hendrix and Jeff Johnson continued to plug along with amazing proficiency.

They each brought home state and national championship trophies last season and the bull's-eye that goes along with them. This is the first junior college job for both coaches. Hendrix came by way of Vernon, and Johnson coached at Marianna and Liberty County.

New positions came with new responsibilities, including recruiting and helping players juggle academics and athletics. Thus far, their efforts have been successful. Winning national titles, the first in each of the diamond sports and only the second and third in school history (men's golf in 1967), doesn't mean Johnson and Hendrix can become complacent.

There are many programs that would love nothing more than to knock them off what history dictates is a precarious perch.

Way with words: Recruiting is a lot like playing poker. Sometimes you have the best hand, while other times you're hoping for a miracle. It's also the first building block of all good programs. Talent and desire often aren't measured by the thousands of dollars meted out to athletes via scholarships. Those attributes are measured on the field.

Hendrix started recruiting on the fly when she was hired in May 2004. She took over for Sharon Coleman, who along with two assistants resigned after six seasons. Only six players were set to return, giving Hendrix little time to build a roster. Her first team fell short of placing in the top four of the Panhandle Conference and earning a berth in the state tournament.

Despite the lack of success, the roster wasn't without key signees, including Marianna's Kelly Lichtfuss, who spurned an offer from Alabama Southern to stay home. Hendrix said it was important to find players who bought into her system and who could function under strict discipline. She said a lack of discipline destroys teams.

The goal was to find a group that would play under those guidelines, and it took letting some players go to find the right mix. This year's team embodied the chemistry Hendrix sought. Players looked out for each other on and off the field, Hendrix said, and there virtually were no ego clashes. “Every one of them is unique, and they each had their strong points,” Hendrix said. “They were amazing. It will be hardest to replace their heart and I'll miss every one of them.”

The Class of 2007 included All-Americans Brittany Minton of Bainbridge, Ga., Sara Lovestrand of Crawfordville and Cassie Lassister of Flomaton, Ala. Other top players were recruited from Georgia, North Carolina and Florida, as well as the Netherlands. The best local prospect on the team was Mosley speedster Tiffany Harmon.

Upon signing with Chipola in 2005, she glanced into the crystal ball with perfect clarity. “I'm looking forward to hopefully being a part of a state championship team,” Harmon said. “Coach Hendrix is putting the program back on track.” Harmon said she chose Chipola over Gulf Coast.

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