SPORTS >>Disappointment can’t dampen hopes for future
The loss of seniors Carrie Mitchell and Hayley O’Cain will be a significant blow to the Lady Jackrabbits, particularly on the defensive side, but the roster that remains should give the Lonoke faithful plenty to remain enthusiastic about.
Missed will be Mitchell’s rebounding and O’Cain’s deadeye shooting, but the Lady ’Rabbits will have no shortage of playmakers.
Asiah Scribner and Michaela Brown will return as a pair of juniors who have started in two priorstate title games. They will be joined by Cara Neighbors, who went from playing freshman basketball games in front of empty houses in early February to almost leading the varsity Lonoke girls to a state championship at a packed Summit Arena in Hot Springs a month later.
Asheigh Himstedt will carry a large load on both sides of the court next season, and 5-8 Brianna Lynch will most likely step into Mitchell’s shoes on the low block, barring the rise of yet another sophomore.
If Lynch does indeed get the nod, she would still be the only senior among the starting five.
Lonoke head coach Nathan Morris was careful to balance his hopes for the future with nostalgia for the loss of his seniors.
“We’ve got a good young group,” Morris said, “so we can look forward. But at the same time, I’ve got a couple of seniors on this team, and I’m not looking forward tonight. That would be unfair to Hayley and Carrie.
“But, yeah, I think the future looks bright. We moved up a ninth grader that got some experience this year in the state tournament. We’ve got two-time starters in the state championship game. But for us to look forward right now would be a little unfair to them.
The differences between the two teams weren’t limited to size and experience. Both teams entered the game with opposite strategies, as well. The Lady Eagles wanted to stop post points, while Lonoke was geared to thwarting the Huntsville’s red-hot outside shooting, especially after the Lady Eagles had rained in 21 threes in their previous two games.
Both teams were largely successful, as Lonoke was able to limit Huntsville to just 2-of-8 shooting from beyond the arc. But sophomore Martha Robinson was able to get inside for 17 points and 10 rebounds.
“They did a great job inside,” Morris said. “We had a hard time stopping Robinson and Williams. The 10 rebounds Robinson got, to me, was the key in the game.”
Still, Morris acknowledged the success of stopping the long ball.
“They had two three-point field goals. They’re a great three-point shooting team. We had our hands in their face, but we just let them loose one too many times inside.”
ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?
Morris, despite the disappointment of losing the state championship game for two years running, was gracious in the pressroom following the game. One question, however, he took exception to, whether he thought Huntsville’s seeming edge in the experience category was a factor.
“I disagree,” Morris protested. “We had two seniors that have been on this floor before. And we had two sophomores that were on this floor as ninth graders last year. Huntsville’s an experienced team, but I don’t think our lack of experience had much to do with it.”
The two coaches, who spent a lot of time in the days leading up to the title game discussing basketball, were a study in contrasts.
Legendary Huntsville coach Charlie Berry, now in his mid-70’s, led the Lady Eagles to a state title first in 1997. He just completed his 47th year in the business.
Morris, in his early 30s, is only in his third season as head coach of the Lady Jackrabbits.
Despite the age difference, and what was at stake in the game, a bond formed between the two coaches.
“Coach Berry and I have actually been hanging out at the hotel,” Morris said after the game. “He kept telling me how good a game it was going to be and I don’t think we disappointed.”
Morris’ career is just beginning. As for Berry, who has contemplated retiring before, it’s hard to say.
“I don’t know,” Berry said. “I’ll talk it over with my wife and then decide. There’s no greater feeling than hearing them play ‘We are the Champions,’ and I told my girls I wanted to hear that one more time.”