Leader Blues

Monday, March 12, 2007

SPORTS >>Lady Jackrabbits relish underdog role in title game

By JASON KING
Leader sportswriter

Underdogs.
It is a term that has been hurled at the Lonoke Lady Jackrabbits the entire week in preparation for the 4A state championship game with Central Arkansas Christian today at the Summit Convention Center in Hot Springs.

Regardless of the chances people are giving them to win, the quiet town is decked out in Lady ‘Rabbit purple to celebrate their first trip to the finals since 1978, when Lonoke took runner-up for what was then the AA state title. The year before, the Lady Jackrabbits won their only state championship, leaving two small banners on the girls’ side of the gymnasium wall.

Lonoke High School does not post banners of conference or regional titles, only state championships. An addition to that wall has not been added in exactly 30 years, but Lady Jackrabbits head coach Nathan Morris hopes to change that with a win over the heralded Lady Mustangs.

“When you have something to hang on these walls, it really means something,” Morris said. “We talked from the very first of the year about hanging something up on that wall. We talked about it last year and kind of blew it, but now we have our chance.”

As for the heavily-favored Lady Mustangs, Morris says not having the benefit of the doubt will hopefully work to his team’s advantage.

“Anytime you’re the underdog, you have to be relieved that the target is not on your back,” Morris said. “We found that out during our conference season. We beat everyone the first time through, but when we played everyone again, we had to take everyone’s best shot, and there were a few bumps in the road. With CAC, what a great team that we get to go up against. Anytime you are the two-time defending champions, you’re definitely going to be the favorite.”

An obviously large part of CAC’s arsenal is Lady Razorback signee and senior post Whitney Zachariason. Hardly much girls basketball in this state has been discussed over the last two years without her name popping into the conversation at some point. While the Lady Mustangs may possess the most celebrated player, Morris says the common strategy of giving Zachariason free reign while shutting down the remaining four CAC players is not one that appeals to the second-year Lonoke coach.

“A lot of people do that,” Morris said. “But I hate to know that I’m just going to give up points to someone. What I don’t want to give up is our inside game. She is certainly a great player, and capable of getting us in foul trouble, but what we want to do is limit her touches in there.”

Logistically, there is little reason for CAC to be considered such tremendous favorites other than reputation. Both teams have had impressive runs through the post season, winning conference, district and regional titles. Lonoke comes into the final sporting an overall record of 26-8, while the Lady Mustangs tote a 25-5 record.

One Lonoke player that is glad to wear the underdog logo is senior post Jenny Evans.

“They’re the favorites, that means the pressure is on them,” Evans said. “We have nothing to lose. They are the ones that are supposed to win, so if they lose, they haven’t lived up to what people expected.”

Senior guard Kristy Shinn welcomes not being favored as a point of motivation.

“I think it makes us play harder,” Shinn said. “Because we know we’re supposed to lose. For me, it makes me play harder just to prove somebody wrong.”

The Lady Mustangs understand that the underdog role will serve as motivation for Lonoke, but believe their track record against the Lady Rabbits will provide some confidence heading into the game.

“We’ve won some close games against them,” CAC coach Steve Quattlebaum said.

“I think that gives us a little bit of confidence. At the same time, we’ve had to go through some knockdown drag-outs to get those wins. We know their personnel and how big they are, and we know they come in really wanting to beat CAC.”

The trip to the championship is not only one of tradition for the Lady ‘Rabbits, but also of legacy. When Evans takes to the court today at 2:30, she will be the only second-generation girls player in the school’s history to compete in the state basketball finals. Her mother, Jacquie, was part of the ’77 and ’78 teams.

“The talk all week has been who knows somebody from those teams,” Morris said. “They aren’t even aware that in another 30 years, people that know them will be talking about the team from 2007, and what they did.”

At Thursday’s practice, the mood resembled preseason practice as opposed to a late-season workout. Different drills were going on at all points of the gymnasium floor. Some players worked on shooting, while others were receiving instruction on defending, and a number of the first and second team players scrimmaged. Members of the boys team were even brought in to simulate the physicality of CAC on the court in scrimmages.

Win or lose, the Lady Jack-rabbits have put themselves on the map as one of the most consistent teams in the state. The unfinished business with their former conference rival could make for high drama today, and a win for Lonoke would put an end to one of the most dominant runs by a team in recent memory.

Senior Calisha Kirk’s comments about the game seem to sum up the mentality of the Lady Jackrabbits the best.

“I’m ready to play,” Kirk said. “It’s not like those girls are unbeatable. They are a great team, but we can play against them.”