By Lauren Brownlow
As a senior at Carson-Newman who would hop in her car after basketball practice and drive ten minutes down the road to coach the Talbott School middle school girl's team, Sylvia Hatchell could not have imagined she'd be where she is today, a win away from 900.
Yet, she's almost essentially the same person. She goes to church every Sunday, even on game days. When she warns her preacher that she may have to leave early, he just shakes his head and is still surprised she comes at all. "Look, the hay is in the barn," she tells him. "We're just waiting to go out there and compete."
If there's ever a game to test her steady demeanor, though, it would be this one: going for her 900th win, at home, on Super Bowl Sunday, against Duke. She'll still go to church that Sunday like she always does, though. She'll have a house filled with friends and family that are more important to her than basketball. And she says her demeanor will be the same.
"I've coached over 1,200 games. I'll be the same that I've always been. There won't be anything any different for me on Sunday," Hatchell said. "Nothing will be any different for me. Like I said, it's not life or death and the sun's going to come up tomorrow, and we're going to play (Duke) again in a few weeks. But I'm going to be giving it all I've got, and I'm sure our players will too."
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt said she started thinking about Hatchell's 900th win before this season began. But Hatchell certainly didn't view it as a given, even this year. After all, the team's record is 20-2 right now. One more win, and not only will Hatchell have 900 wins, but the Tar Heels will also have surpassed their entire win total from last season, which ended in early March in the 2012 ACC Tournament. This year, UNC has reached 20 wins before January ended.
Hatchell seemed almost reluctant to talk about her 900th win and much more happy to discuss the Carolina-Duke game, which is one of the best rivalries in the country in all sports. She'd much rather everyone (including her team, probably) focus on that.
"I appreciate the fact that everybody is recognizing me, but it's not about that - it's about these kids having a tremendous college basketball experience. And there is not a better basketball college experience than playing in a Carolina-Duke game," Hatchell said. "It doesn't matter what sport it is, what gender you are - it just doesn't get any better than Duke and Carolina playing each other. Really, that should be what this whole game is about on Sunday."
And on the flip side of that, of course her own players want to get this 900th win almost BECAUSE it's Duke. They want 900 for Hatchell. And they want to beat Duke, badly. So what better way to combine the two than to have both happen at once?
"It just adds to the whole Duke-Carolina game. It just makes it that much more intense," Krista Gross said. "It makes us that much more ready to play, maybe makes us play that much harder. We really want to get that win for Coach Hatchell and get that win against Duke more than anything."
Hatchell downplayed the significance of her 900th win compared to the Duke-Carolina game, of course. While some of that is her trying to be humble and shift focus back to her players, a lot of it is just who Hatchell is. She's the same person who drove the ten minutes to coach a middle school girls' team when she was 22. She's down-to-earth, focused on her family and fiercely loyal to her players.
And she now has the benefit of perspective. She didn't know as a young coach that after a few losses in a row, the sun would still come up the next day. She knows that now. She feels as young as she ever has, and with an excellent recruiting class coming in next season, who knows? Maybe she'll even reach 1,000 before she hangs it up.
"I've just got tremendous balance. I've got a great family, staff, everything. I'm having a good time and these kids are the reason for it, because I love this team, and I think they know that. I think that's one reason why they're playing so hard right now," Hatchell said. "Every day, I'm excited. I can't wait to get up and get going. I'm having a great time. Mainly, it's just the journey and the people around me, especially this group of kids."