The moment to step up was there after multiple years of not being able to get past the Central Regional in Montgomery, and Dunson took the call, lifting his team to the Class 4A Final Four. Leah Strain did the same for Woodland, helping the girls team punch through for its first state championship.
Dunson is The Anniston Star’s All-Area boys basketball player of the year, while Strain is the All-Area girls player of the year.
Dunson said everything improved for him after a small setback at midseason.
“Things changed after I had to sit out for two games and coach (Clifton) Drummonds and I had a talk,” Dunson said. “It hurt me to have to miss those two games, so I decided when I came back I was going to play at a whole new level.
“Then it got close to the end of the season and we went on a run. We knew it was time to play.”
Dunson averaged 20.6 points a game during the regular season, but started scoring nearly 30 points a game from the area tournament on to the Final Four.
“Trae really started playing well when we got to the playoffs,” said Drummonds, the team’s head coach. “It was almost like he had awakened at that point. We had lost the past couple of years in the regionals, but when we got to the area tournament, he was not going to let us lose.
“The bigger the night, the brighter the lights, the better he played.”
Although Handley fell to J.O. Johnson in the state semifinals, Dunson’s career will continue at Meridian Community College. He signed with the school this month.
“I know it’s going to be a big opportunity for me to go out there and play against players that I know are going to be as good as I am and love the game as much as I do,” Dunson said. “It’s going to make me get a lot better and I’m going to need to be a lot better to play on that level.”
After Woodland won its 2A title, the players have been treated like celebrities, according to Strain.
“My family will go out to eat after church and people will constantly come on and talk to us about it and congratulate us,” Strain said. “The community is so happy for us.
“I’ll go to school, and people are still talking about it. Around town, everyone is still talking about it. I think about it every day. I’m finally a state champion.”
Strain played the largest role in Woodland’s state title run, averaging 21.5 points a game and adding 5.2 assists and 7.0 rebounds a game. She shot 60 percent from the field. The numbers were good enough to earn the junior first team all-state honors and she also finished second in voting for the Class 2A girls player of the year.
A star on the court, since winning the state championship, Strain has become a superstar off the court as well.
“At school we had so many elementary kids that were asking players for autographs that we set up a whole autograph session for all the elementary students because they all wanted some,” she said. “So we set up some time to do that for them.
“And the whole community was invited to the celebration about two weeks after we won it so even adults were asking us for our autographs. It made us feel famous.”
But Strain is already back at work toward her senior season for Woodland and also practicing with her AAU team. Strain also recently made the cheerleading squad as the co-captain.
“I just think we have a chance to do it again,” she said as she thinks of her senior season. “We just need to stay focused and healthy. If we put our minds to it anything can happen.”
Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.