DECATUR — When asked to describe the whirlwind of the last four years of her basketball career, Jayda Dees took a big breath, smiled slightly and exhaled deeply.
From the empty bleachers in the MacArthur gymnasium during a Saturday morning practice, Dees reflected on just how far she and the rest of the Generals' seniors have come from those lean years as freshmen and sophomores.
“Freshman year, I used to break down a lot," Dees said, describing times of isolating herself from teammates and how her leg used to shake with frustration. "Eighth grade year we won most of our games, so to come in freshman year and sophomore year and lose almost every game was very frustrating.
“My freshman year, I was like, ‘Yep. It’s going to be a long four years.'"
This group of seniors went from winning a combined seven games in their first two high school seasons to turning the corner as juniors under then first-year coach Mike Williams to finally winning a regional championship this season. On Monday, the Generals will play Bethalto Civic Memorial in the Class 3A Taylorville Sectional semifinals to keep their season alive.
“It really had to be tough for all of those girls," Williams said. "To lose, lose, lose and lose to your crosstown rivals and still come out every year and play, it had to be tough."
MacArthur's (24-8) seniors Dees, Kyyawna Johnson, Mariah Shores and Kierra Smith-King persevered through getting 80 points hung on them several times to knowing their season was over in the first round of regionals. It's quite the difference for this season's sophomores who only know what it feels like to win under Williams and his coaching staff. The Generals have won 43 games in the last two seasons.
But Dees and the seniors share the stories and can't help but to laugh a little bit when talking about those seasons.
“They don’t know what it’s like to lose every game," Dees said. "They come here and it’s a new environment and we're winning. I just look at them and smile. They just don’t know."
Dees has expanded her game from a shooting guard to an all-around guard. She's averaging 14 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 3.5 steals for the Generals this season. Dees is engaged defensively and Williams said she's been the team's best defender all season and second best rebounder behind sophomore standout Quincenia Jackson.
A deep commitment to the weight room has helped Dees finish through contact at the rim and fight among bigger defenders for rebounds.
Her skill-set is accompanied by her business-like demeanor. Johnson calls Dees' mean-mug, an intimidating scowl on her face, "legendary." When that scowl happens, it usually doesn't end well for opposing teams.
“Sorry for you guys," Johnson said of her thoughts for the other teams with Dees starts to scowl. "She’s going to come bulldoze everybody."
Williams knew of Dees' serious attitude before taking over as head coach last season. He's coached most of the players in AAU and knew that behind the scowl, there's a softer side. Dees is often on the receiving end when Williams needs to ramp up to a more fierce coaching style. At first, she would bark back, but she knows she's setting an example. She listens quietly as Williams makes his points. Those moments are partly what makes the regional championship even better.
"Everybody knows that Jayda walks around with that mean look on her face and she mean-mugs you and people probably think that she doesn’t care," Williams said. "She cares; she’s just got her own way of showing it. When I saw her busting those smiles (on Thursday), it just melts your heart knowing these girls and what they’ve been through. They stuck with it and finally believed what I was telling them was going to happen."
Even amid the losing, Dees never considered quitting. She knew it would be a four-year journey, for better of for worse.
“Just trust the process," she said. "Everything happens for a reason."
Practicing on the Saturday after regionals and the feeling of accepting the first regional championship plaque since 2010 were payoffs. Those were moments that Dees, Johnson and the seniors thought could eventually happen. So why didn't they quit?
“Moments like this," Johnson said. "We were waiting for it to get better. We love basketball. We want to play basketball after high school. We stuck with it to keep going."