SPORTS >>Lady ’Rabbits back for 2nd straight year
Leader sports editor
Nathan Morris isn’t one to shy away from talking about state championships.
“In the fall, in the summer, when we’re weight training, when we’re running sprints, we talk about playing in March, talk about winning championships, talk about hanging banners,” said Morris, the Lonoke Lady Jackrabbits’ third-year head coach.
“If you talk about it, and teach it and preach it, you can get them to buy into it.”
Morris has just talked his Lady ’Rabbits (26-8) into their second consecutive 4A state title game. Lonoke did something on Saturday no team had ever done before: beat Dumas in their new gym. That victory pits them against Huntsville on Thursday in the 4A championship. Tip is set for 5:15 p.m. at the Summit Arena in Hot Springs, right after the Lonoke boys play for their own state championship against Hamburg at 3:30.
Morris figures his girls have some unfinished business after Lonoke lost a 10-point lead late and fell to Central Arkansas Christian in last season’s final. But, in Huntsville, Lonoke is facing a team with its own impressive pedigree. The Lady Eagles dispatched defending champion CAC on Saturday to snap the Lady Mustangs’ 21-game win streak and extend their own to 33.
“That was a gigantic win for us,” said Huntsville head coach Charles Berry, whose Lady Eagles haven’t lost since dropping early season games to Siloam Springs and Shiloh Christian. “We went 26-2 last year and didn’t make it to state, so that was a kind of a driving force for us.”
The Lady Eagles (34-2) were shocked last season in the opening round of regionals by Booneville. They have come back with a vengeance this season, led by a balanced attack and an experienced roster, which features four seniors and two juniors among their regular rotation. In their 55-49 win over CAC, four players scored in double figures, led by Kaylee Johnson’s 14. In the quarterfinal win over Highland, Jo Beth Williams, one of Huntsville’s post players, did the damage with 18 points.
Other scoring threats Lonoke must contend with are Johnna Tenberge, Martha Robinson (post), and Morgan Myrick. Johnson runs the point.
“We’ve got seven players that play equally,” Berry said. “If you look at Lonoke and look at us, we’re both about the same. We both have good posts. They have more quickness on the perimeter. We maybe shoot it a little better.”
What makes Huntsville dangerous is they are an outstanding perimeter-shooting team, but with good size to go along with it. Berry said his Lady Eagles hit 21 three-pointers in the two games at Dumas last week.
“They’re as tough inside as they are outside,” Morris said. “They all have big numbers as far as height. They’ve got a big sophomore who can get out and guard a point guard. They can all shoot from the perimeter. And if they read a mismatch, they can post somebody up.
“They’ll have a height advantage so we’ll have to utilize our speed. It will be a tough test for us. But I wouldn’t bet against our kids.”
The Lady Jackrabbits, under Morris, have done it with defense first. They are winning by an average score of 45-33 this season, compared to Huntsville’s average scoring margin of 63-38.
But Lonoke has added some scoring punch with the emergence of freshman Cara Neighbors. Apparently undaunted by moving to varsity at a time in the season when the competition becomes more intense, the ninth grader has led the Lady Jackrabbits in four of the seven games she has appeared in.
“We always knew she was a tremendous scoring threat,” Morris said. “And she’s as fast with the ball as she is without it. She’s made a few freshman mistakes, but her positives have far outweighed any mistakes she’s made.”
Morris said Neighbors’ emergence has been a big key, given that most teams focus on stopping sophomore post player Asiah Scribner, inside player Carrie Mitchell and perimeter scorer Hayley O’Cain.
“The scouting report on us is two post players and one shooter,” Morris said. “But now we have Cara. And Ashleigh Himstedt and Michaela Brown can both get to the basket. It seems like they’re all understanding that this time of year, we need certain things to happen. Ashleigh and Michaela are getting a little more offensive minded.”
Morris said it was the first time in school history both the boys’ and girls’ teams have played for a state title. That just speaks to the success of the overall program, he said. He wasn’t sure if the school or town was planning a sendoff or special celebration today or Thursday, he added.
“If they don’t,” he said with a laugh, “that may just mean that people have come to expect us to get there. That’s maybe not so bad.”