Jul. 16—Hanceville's 2000-01 varsity girls basketball team had just one objective.
Then-head coach Carol Lewey laid it out while speaking with The Times for a preseason preview.
"Our main goal is to do better than we did last year," she said in November 2000.
Little did she know what was to come.
A mere two weeks later, the Bulldogs embarked on a season to remember — one that ended with a Class 3A state title and remains to this day the greatest in program history.
I interviewed several key people who were part of or coached against that state championship team two decades ago, and they all offered their thoughts and recollections about one of the best varsity girls teams to ever compete in Cullman County.
The Bulldogs entered the 2000-01 campaign fresh off a 21-6 season in which they claimed county and area tournament crowns before advancing to the Northwest Regional Tournament, where they ultimately fell to West Limestone — their first loss in 15 games. Lewey's team returned four starters, including 6-foot-4 standout and reigning Class 3A Player of the Year Dee Merriweather, and boasted five seniors. Also, the fourth-year Purple and Gold coach didn't have to provide much motivation for a talented group eager to return to the floor following a lengthy offseason. In short, Hanceville had all the pieces and desire to cause a lot of issues for a lot of teams. The expectations, though? Depends who you ask.
Lewey: "I had high hopes for them. They were a bunch of girls that worked hard and liked each other. You just don't know what's going to happen in a season, though. I never went into it thinking we were going to be state champs. That didn't happen until it happened."
Christina Garner, sophomore: "We didn't have a huge history of winning (at Hanceville). We were hopeful, but I don't know that we had a bunch of expectations. Some of the other girls might feel differently."
Leslie Dyer, junior: "Being kids, it didn't really register that we were that good."
Bridget Merriweather, junior: "We wanted to bring the trophy home."
Dee Merriweather, senior: "I would lean more toward Christina's point of view. We knew we had girls who showed up each and every day and worked. We believed in coach, too, and we thought we had something special. But as far as going as far as we did and thinking that was reality, I don't think so. We kind of joked about it before the season."
The Bulldogs got off to a fast start, winning the Hanceville Thanksgiving Tournament with ease and racing out to an 8-0 record. Then came their first speed bump. West Point took down Hanceville 43-42 in December after corralling an early lead and holding off a late charge from the home team. The Bulldogs had a chance to win at the end but couldn't get the job done..
Lewey: "We missed a shot right under the goal. Tiffany (Creekmore) was heartbroken, but I told her that wasn't the only shot missed in the game. It was close all the way; they just happened to win. But it was the best thing to happen to us, because we realized then we had some things to work on — and we went to work, let me tell you. We all looked back on that later and thought, 'Yep, that's what turned it around.'"
Creekmore, senior: "I cried my eyes out and felt like a huge letdown (laughs). There's nothing worse than letting your team down. Everybody was very uplifting, though. They were telling me there were other shots that we could have made and stuff like that. It just hit me hard, because it was a win-lose situation."
Garner: "I think that loss definitely propelled us forward. We had enjoyed winning, and we thought — at that point — we were going to be good. The next day at practice, we were ready to go. We went harder and harder the rest of the season. I don't know if we would have won like we had if we hadn't lost to them. All I can remember about the game itself is losing. West Point was good. They had won so many county championships. We knew they were the team to beat, and we could have and should have beaten them."
Dyer: "We were a little sedentary at this point. We were winning by so much early in the season that Christina and I would get benched. We drove coach crazy telling her we were bored and wanted to play. So I remember at halftime thinking we couldn't be so laid back. Sure enough, they beat us. But we didn't get caught flat-footed anymore after that."
Bridget Merriweather: "We didn't want to give anyone else the satisfaction of beating us."
The loss could've shaken Hanceville's confidence, but instead the team used it as a launching pad, netting 11 consecutive victories — winning the Holly Pond Christmas Tournament, securing a No. 1 ranking in the Class 3A poll and wrapping up a perfect regular season record (6-0) in Class 3A, Area 11 (Good Hope, Holly Pond and J.B. Pennington) play during that stretch — to create momentum ahead of the Cullman County Tournament.
Dee Merriweather: "This is where we all thought we really could take this team further than it's been before. I still don't really know if we thought we were going to go all the way, but we definitely felt like we had a shot."
Bridget Merriweather: "We thought it could be our year."
Dyer: "I don't like getting my hopes up or assuming anything. But it was starting to get real."
Garner: "We knew we had something to be proud of by this point. What stood out to me most, though, were the practices. Coach would put a bunch of players on us and beat the crap out of us. She wanted us to be able to handle anything. Those practices and the teammates I had are some of the most memorable things from that season."
The defending champions made effortless work of their competition inside Tom Drake Coliseum, beating Good Hope in the semifinals (47-30) before coasting past Cold Springs in the title game (74-47) for their third county crown in four years. Dee Merriweather netted 28 points and ripped down 15 rebounds, while Garner (21) and Dyer (10) also scored in double figures. Cold Springs' Kasey Wilbanks, meanwhile, totaled a game-high 36 points. It wasn't nearly enough to prevent the Bulldogs from making a statement and improving to 21-1.
Dyer: "I remember a younger teammate saying they were getting to play a lot, because we were up so much. Watching Alabama football now and looking back — it felt like Coach Lewey was the Nick Saban of county basketball at that time. We just breezed through it, and a lot of those players under us got a lot of playing time."
Garner: "We had a great mindset. We didn't go in there expecting to win. We just knew we could do whatever it took to win. It was like we were a machine at that point, and everyone was just going to play their best."
Dee Merriweather: "We were all confident in our abilities and how we were playing. But, at the same time, we had so much respect for the other teams in the county. I don't think we came in thinking these games were won before we showed up. After the fact, though, it was a surprise how well we did."
Lewey: "I knew they were special by winning the county tournament. They were playing good, and we had no injuries. Things were beginning to gel a little better. We were coming together as a team. At this point, we just tried to take it one game at a time."
Tammy West, Cold Springs coach: "They had the special players you had to have to have a special team. I vividly remember trying everything we could to defend them. But when we focused on one thing, they'd do another. They could score at will inside, and they were such a well-balanced team. They had no missing links and were a total package. Coach Lewey did a fantastic job, too."
Next up for Hanceville: the Class 3A, Area 11 Tournament. After dispatching Holly Pond in the semifinals (65-23), the Bulldogs dominated J.B. Pennington in the championship (74-50) to earn sub-regional hosting rights. Garner scored a team-high 28 points — impressive considering she spent four hours in the ER the night before dealing with a stomach virus — and Dee Merriweather added yet another double-double (24 points and 18 rebounds) in the victory.
Garner: "My aunt worked at the hospital, and I had been really sick all weekend and was very dehydrated. She said I wasn't playing, and I said, 'I'm playing.' I didn't tell anybody about it. But the paper found out from my driver's ed teacher, and I was so mad (laughs). I didn't want that in the paper. I felt horrible, but I had to hyper focus on what I was doing. I don't think I went to school the next day, but I didn't miss that night."
Lewey: "I didn't know at the time. I don't even think she told me until the following week. I was just shocked. Christina was that kind of player, though. She didn't let anything keep her from doing her best."
Dee Merriweather: "I do remember having a greater respect for her (after finding out). You wanted to step on the court and give it your all because she was the one leading us."
Hanceville went on to defeat Madison Academy in the sub-regional round (70-51) to advance to the Northeast Regional Tournament at Jacksonville State. The Bulldogs — behind a terrific performance from Dee Merriweather — knocked off No. 4 Sylvania in the semifinals (62-47) and punched their ticket to the Elite Eight. The game was tied at 42-all with 4 minutes remaining, but the Purple and Gold reeled off a 15-0 spurt to seize control. Merriweather finished with 24 points and a then-regional-record 22 rebounds. Garner and Dyer added 16 and 12 points, respectively. That remarkable performance by Merriweather prompted then-Sylvania coach Heath Thrash to state after the game: "It was like Shaq posting up against an NAIA college team."
Dyer: "We found a notebook cleaning up the gym (after beating Madison Academy). There were notes in there about us, someone scouting us. Seeing someone else write those things about us just kicked it in gear for me. I thought, 'Oh, other people are watching us? That's cool.'"
Lewey: "I think Sylvania got in foul trouble, and they didn't have anybody that could guard Dee. If they double-teamed her, she'd dish it off. She didn't want the glory and wasn't a ball hog. She could be timid. I had to make her mad and aggravate her sometimes so she'd play like she could (laughs), but I didn't like to do that."
Dee Merriweather: "I was a little timid. I was the tallest player, and you felt all eyes were on you. I think coach knew exactly when I needed help from her to get me to be aggressive or mean out there. I had never heard that quote, though. To hear that now, it does put a little smile on my face and gives me a little chuckle."
Garner: "I can remember a timeout toward the end. We agreed then we didn't want to be in a tight situation at the end. We knew we needed to execute, and we were able to do it. I think that's when I thought we could win state. I knew Sylvania was good, but we were better. I also remember being so happy Dee was on my team (laughs). If everything fell apart, I could just throw it to her."
Dyer: "We buckled down and focused, but I also remember being a nervous wreck. When things got tight, I just recall Coach Lewey keeping us calm, keeping our heads level."
In the regional final, the Bulldogs played DAR in what turned out to be an instant classic. The teams fought tooth-and-nail for 31-plus minutes, with the Patriots going ahead 46-45 late in the contest. Hanceville, however, came through in the clutch. Dee Merriweather hit Creekmore with a pass, and the latter sank the go-ahead shot with 8 seconds left. DAR had one last chance to end the Purple and Gold's dream season, but the potential game-winning bucket missed its mark. The ball bounded in the hands of Amber Sellers as time expired. Hanceville 47, DAR 46. The Bulldogs were headed to Birmingham. Dee Merriweather garnered MVP accolades following a 25-point, 20-rebound, 7-block performance. Garner joined her on the All-Tournament Team as well. Valarie Kanaday also stepped up to play pivotal minutes for Lewey with both Dee and Bridget Merriweather mired in foul trouble throughout the contest.
Creekmore: "It was definitely redemption for me. Dee had two people guarding her heavily, and she passed it to me. I will never forget the look on Dee's face. When she passed it, I was shocked. But her look was full of confidence that I would make it. It wasn't until we got in the locker room that it fully hit me what had actually happened. (But) one shot doesn't win or lose a game."
Garner: "They were the most physical team we had played, and we were in the same situation we were against West Point. We drew up a similar play, and I was thinking, 'I'm not sure this is the right decision (laughs).' But I also knew you had to trust the process and hope for the best. It was a huge moment for Tiffany and helped her feel better about what happened against West Point."
Lewey: "I thought they wouldn't expect her (Tiffany) to get the ball. We put Dee in the high post, and I told her to turn around and see who was open. Tiffany got it and went up with it."
Dee Merriweather: "I can remember the shot going in and the look on everyone's faces. Everyone was so excited. For Tiffany, I do feel like she was a little down after that West Point game. But we weren't worried about that at all. We had all the confidence in the world in her. We weren't surprised she made it."
Bridget Merriweather: "It was just meant to be. It happened for a reason."
Dyer: "I remember that game was terrible for me (laughs). Nothing went in, and it was very heated. When we were shaking hands, a girl goes to slap Dee. But everyone kind of jumped in, and it was over. I remember DAR coming on our bus later and apologizing. It was intense."
Dee Merriweather: "I thought about it being tied and seeing the disappointment in our faces if we were to lose. It helped me give as much as I could give. They put up a fight, but I just kept seeing flashes of the game ending and us not coming out on top. We had come too far to see it end."
Lewey: "Dee was in foul trouble, so we moved her out of the middle on defense and put Valarie in there. She had told me, 'I don't want to go in; I'm scared.' And I told her she's going to be fine (laughs), and she was. She stepped up for us."
The Bulldogs crushed No. 3 Weaver in the state semifinals (71-21), building a 42-9 halftime lead and never looking back. Dee Merriweather recorded a triple-double (22 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks), while Sellers had 13 points. Said then-Weaver coach Bobby Whaley of Merriweather: "Not letting her out of the locker room — that's about the only way (to stop her)."
Dyer: "It was crazy. We all got benched, and we all wanted to play. We couldn't believe we pulled that far away."
Bridget Merriweather: "Oh, God. They were talking about how they had two tall girls, and it seemed like they were going to be tough. We played them, though, and that team was a breeze."
Garner: "I don't think we expected to win like that, but we expected to win. Our practices were so hard. Coach was like a tyrant (laughs). We knew we were ready to play that day."
Lewey: "I wanted them to be in the best shape they could be and be as strong as possible. We thought this was going to be a pretty tight game. But it wasn't."
Dee Merriweather: "I remember during the game that we had a blast. The whole community was there supporting us. I also remember hearing that quote and thinking it was funny."
No. 2 Lauderdale County, meanwhile, dominated Tarrant (72-40) and had its sights set on a sixth state championship. No. 1 vs. No. 2 in a state title game — what more could you want?
Lewey: "There were comments made sometime during the semifinals. Hanceville couldn't win the title. They can't beat Lauderdale County. They don't have the experience. To me, that didn't matter. It was how you played that day. I knew they had been the top team for years and won a lot of state championships. But we were pumped up and ready."
Dee Merriweather: "I feel like everyone heard those comments. I think a lot of us felt they were favored, but we wanted to go out and play our best and have fun and prove that we could win."
Dyer: "I think we knew we had it. Not in a too-confident way, though. We just weren't going to allow ourselves to lose. We were a close-knit team with a great coach."
Garner: "I had this fire burning in me. In ninth grade, all these people were like, 'Hanceville is going to win state.' But we lost. And it was because we couldn't break a press, and Hanceville didn't have a point guard. So I wanted to play Lauderdale County and prove to everyone that Hanceville does have a point guard — me. That matchup was everything I wanted it to be."
Hanceville led 34-30 late in the third quarter of the title game before Lewey made a subtle, yet effective, change. Instead of inbounding directly to Garner, the coach had her throw the ball in to Dee Merriweather, who in turn tossed it back to Garner in what amounted to a give-and-go. That tweak vexed the Tigers and allowed the Bulldogs to produce a game-changing, 20-9 run that all but locked up the Blue Map for the hometown squad. "We call it the Christina Press Break," Lewey said at the time. "We get Christina the ball, and she takes it up the court."
Garner: "They had two girls trying to grab me, but they were skinny — and I wasn't (laughs). We had been trying to do other things, but coach stopped me and told me I had to get the ball down the court. In my head, I'm thinking, 'OK, it's up to me.'"
Lewey: "She would just head down the court, and she'd get fouled and make free throws. If they didn't foul her, she'd dish it off. And if we didn't score quickly, we'd set something up."
Dee Merriweather: "The whole thing was — press time, get the ball to Christina. She's going to figure out how to not get trapped or get out of the trap."
Brant Llewellyn, Lauderdale County coach: "We were hoping we could turn it into an up-and-down game, because they were going to have the advantage in the half-court with their size and length. But when their point guard was able to handle our pressure as well as she did, it changed the game. We just weren't able to do anything against what they were doing against our press. They did an outstanding job."
Hanceville's fairy-tale season ultimately earned its storybook ending. The Bulldogs bested the Tigers 60-43 thanks in large part to tournament MVP Dee Merriweather (24 points, a championship-game record 30 rebounds and 10 blocks) and Garner, whose pivotal press-breaking abilities allowed the Purple and Gold to stymie the trademark of Lauderdale County and Llewellyn — winners of eight state championships since, including the two years that followed — just enough to stake claim as the best basketball team in Class 3A. Bridget Merriweather joined her sister and Garner on the All-Tournament Team.
Dee Merriweather: "As the clock is running down, I'm thinking what a deserving group of girls it was. The odds were against us. Being there every day with them ... I go back to the bond we shared on and off the court. I was so happy for the entire team and proud of the work we put in — not just that season, but our whole careers — that led us to that moment."
Garner: "I can only remember being happy. Coming into my freshman season, this really wasn't something I dreamed we would do. I just wanted to win county and area. And that was huge. I was so happy to do that. But to win a state title ... it was unimaginable. All these years later, it's still that way. We were a good team, and we had talent. But we put in so much time and effort — even past what coach asked from us. It was special to be part of that."
Dyer: "I didn't want to think too much about it until the buzzer sounded (laughs). Those last two minutes — just crazy. It was pretty cool. I remember watching the 2A finals earlier, and there was nothing more heart-wrenching. They were playing "We Are The Champions" as I looked at the losing team, and I was just thinking, 'We aren't going to be that team.'"
Lewey: "It was unbelievable. It was something new to me and to the girls. I just remember thinking that we owned the whole state."
Bridget Merriweather: "To be able to share it with my older sister was a blessing and something I knew we could tell our kids about one day."
Creekmore: "It almost didn't seem real at the time. My dad was always kind of my second coach. I remember seeing that moment on his face, too, because he had walked through the season with me. It's definitely the best memory of my career."
Llewellyn: "Dee had one of the most phenomenal stat lines you can have in a game. The opening possession ... they played a big 2-3 zone, and we threw the ball to one of our post players at the free-throw line. She squared up and took a shot. But because of Dee's length, I think it went over the backboard (laughs). We knew we were in for a long day then. They had a great team."
The Bulldogs closed out their phenomenal season with 23 straight wins to finish with a 31-1 record. Dee Merriweather, the driving force behind it all, was rewarded handsomely — Class 3A Player of the Year and Super 5 Team selection (ASWA), Player of the Year (Birmingham Tip Off Club), Player of the Year and Super All-State selection (Birmingham News) — for those absurd numbers she doled out on a nightly basis, and rightfully so. She went on to sign with the University of Illinois-Chicago before eventually transferring to the University of Alabama, where she crafted a fantastic collegiate career. Garner, meanwhile, recorded All-State accolades from the Birmingham News (second-teamer) and ASWA (Class 3A honorable mention). Last but not least, Lewey received a brand-new Cadillac — a promise fulfilled by her husband, Doug.
Lewey: "I was really shocked. He told me if I won a state title, he'd buy me a new Cadillac. I just thought he was kidding. I already had one, but it was an older one. My daughter told me later (that on) the night before the Lauderdale County game he went to the Cadillac place and said if we won he wanted a car in the Hanceville parking lot when our bus got back. I just couldn't believe it."
Dyer: "When we got back, it was amazing. Our whole town went above and beyond for us. They really made us feel like we were famous. Everybody was doting over us."
Dee Merriweather: "It was very special at the time. I don't think I was expecting any of the awards I received. But it was special. It's always good to be able to look back on those memories."
Bridget Merriweather: "It's a plus to see your family succeed. It was good that she had something to show for all her hard work and dedication."
Lewey: "Dee was a very calm person. I think her junior and senior years, though, she started to get more determined about how she was going to play. When she got the ball, she was going to do something with it. I was happy to see her get the recognition. She used to just go with the flow. That season, she made some of the flow."
Garner: "My family was a softball family, and no one was into basketball or wanted me to play. Everyone wanted me to play softball. I said I can work hard and make myself a decent player. So those accolades were nice."
It's been 20 years since a group of Bulldogs — some in irreplaceable roles, some in support roles, some in practice roles — put together a season for the ages. The banner still proudly hangs, and the Blue Map still shines in a newly built Lane Horton Gymnasium, forever reminders of what 15 kids and a seasoned coach accomplished so long ago.
Dee Merriweather: "It's definitely something to look back on and be extremely proud of. Going back to Hanceville and visiting and driving past the gym and school and seeing that — it's special. Hanceville will always have a special place in my heart."
Garner: "I appreciate so much — the community we had, Luna's BBQ for feeding us, the time Coach Lewey and other volunteers put into us. As a coach, it can be tough to find good help and get the community involved and have all your players working their butts off. It was a magical time for Hanceville."
Creekmore: "We had an amazing support system and fans on our journey that year. It was nice to win. Not only for us but for them, too."
Bridget Merriweather: "The friendship, love and respect we had for each other is what helped us. We never put anyone above the team. We were all one. We had each other's backs."
Lewey: "I enjoy thinking about it. I look at the pictures and think about each of the girls and what they did. It was just a special, special year. It makes me smile. I think each girl knew what they could do and what they needed to do. That's one thing that made them special."
Creekmore: "When people find out I went to Hanceville, I often get asked if I was on the championship team. It's something I can proudly answer yes to. I'm thankful my dad cut out every newspaper article that year. I still have them. One of my boys (eventually) came across my state championship ring and asked about it. It was then I could pull out all my memories and share them with my boys. You never think of yourself as a champ. But, in your kids' eyes, hearing the stories of your childhood makes you a hero to them — and that's a great feeling."
Dyer: "It's not something you just brag about, but it comes up in conversation. When you're in school, it's your whole life. Looking back now, it wasn't my whole life. But it sure is awesome to have those memories forever. I love going through the pictures to this day. Every time I dig through my box, it all comes back. We had so much fun, and I wish all the teams could experience that feeling. It was the best time of our lives."