Jessica Burnette’s favorite photograph is one that spans generations.
Burnette’s daughters, Alli and Sadie, rising stars in the Woodruff basketball program, are standing on the court in the Woodruff High School gym, and behind them hanging high above the court is a painted portrait of their great grandfather, legendary Woodruff football coach W.L. Varner.
It is the continuation of a legacy spanned by decades of championships, countless victories, and an unmatched love for a school and town that has a remarkable history of excellence.
“Last year when Alli and Sadie were being recognized at halftime of the varsity basketball game, I took a picture from far away where it has Daddy Bill’s picture up on the wall in the background and the girls down at center court,” Jessica Burnette recalled. “Just playing in that gym is special.”
Now, Alli and Sadie are blazing a trail of their own. Varner, of course, was a highly successful girls basketball coach as well, winning four state championships, and it is a tireless work ethic and a drive to succeed that Alli and Sadie inherited from their great grandfather.
Alli, a freshman post player on the junior varsity team, and Sadie, a seventh grader starting at shooting guard for the middle school team, are both rising stars with a bright future. That future is being forged through countless hours of practice and training, and striving to be the best.
“It’s a lot of hard work, self-confidence, and telling yourself that you can be a great player,” said Alli. “You just have to believe in yourself.”
Alli added that her younger sister, Sadie, helps to push her towards being a better player as the two of them compete against one another when not playing for their respective teams.
“There’s a real competition between us,” she said. “We’re always competing at everything and one on one. There are also times where we work together because we play different positions.”
Sadie, who has quickly blossomed into one of the best players on the Woodruff Middle School team, admitted that learning the ins and outs of the game was not easy. As one of the hardest workers on the team, however, she quickly found her niche as the starting shooting guard through hard work and training.
“Whenever I first started playing, I feel like I didn’t really know much about (basketball),” said Sadie. “I couldn’t tell the difference between defense and offense. Here at the middle school with Coach Addis, we work hard to learn the game and he doesn’t let us play around”
Sadie added that competing against her older sister in their personal time has made her a better and more equipped player for her team.
“It makes me a better player because I feel like we always play teams that are bigger than us so it helps me out because she is bigger and I can work on different moves.”
When reflecting on what drew them to the game of basketball, Alli and Sadie both have different stories. Alli was at first not interested in the game, and conversely, Sadie developed an immediate love of the sport. Now, they both flourish on the court.
“When I was young and in elementary school, I actually hated basketball,” admitted Alli. “I don’t know, I guess it just clicked probably in sixth grade and I started working with the middle school team as a fill-in manager. Then I decided I wanted to play. I didn’t play much my seventh-grade year but in eight grade I got to play a lot more.”
Sadie, on the other hand, showed an immediate affinity for the game.
“We just started going to the varsity games and I thought it was pretty cool and I wanted to play,” she said.
Both sisters began training weekly at Basketball Combine Training (BCT) in Greenville. At BCT, both Alli and Sadie saw their games blossom and grow, and it is that drive and work ethic that Woodruff Middle School coach Daniel Addis says makes Alli and Sadie stand apart.
“I don’t know if we’ve had two in the past few years that love basketball as much as they do,” said Addis. “You can tell by how hard they work in practice and the offseason. They have done a tremendous job. Alli has worked her tail off for years to get where she’s at. You can tell that hard work is paying off for her.”
For Jessica, it is a source of pride to see her daughters continue the Varner lineage of excellence as she herself was a star athlete at Woodruff in the 1990’s. To watch them continue to grow in the game and with their skills, she said, is special.
“My husband (John) and I said when they first showed an interest in basketball that we would do whatever we could to help them build their skills,” Jessica said. “We started taking them to BCT and their skills improved dramatically and Alli won most improved player her eighth-grade year. We are very proud of them and I know Daddy Bill is too.”
Alli added that she wants to be a part of a program that brings the first basketball state championship back to Woodruff since her great grandfather won his final basketball title 52 years ago in 1967.
“It’s very special,” she said. “I really want to be part of a team that helps carry on his legend.”
By Garrett Mitchell, Contributing Writer