Leader Blues

Friday, December 18, 2009

SPORTS >> Lonoke trio seeking final title trip

Lonoke senior guard Ashleigh Himstedt shoots over a Cabot defender in the Lady Jackrabbits’ season opener at Hall.

Leader sportswriter

As freshmen, they were expected to do nothing more than support the upperclassmen on the court.

As sophomores, they were only expected to help in the rebuilding process and, as juniors, to build on the success from the year before.

But Lonoke seniors Asiah Scribner, Michaela Brown and Ashleigh Himstedt face considerably higher expectations this season.

Scribner and Brown have started for coach Nathan Morris’ Lady Jackrabbits since their freshman seasons and have started in three straight 4A state championship games. Himstedt has started the past two years and in the previous two state title games.

With three finals appearances and three state runner-up trophies to their credit, the old term “unfinished business” creeps up on the trio quite frequently these days.

The 2008-09 season unfolded much like the previous two, with the Lady ’Rabbits kicking into higher gear once the postseason arrived. They finished second to Bald Knob in the 2-4A Conference as the Lady Bulldogs swept the regular season series, but it was the Lady Jackrabbits who swept the district and regional finals.

“We play hard when we have to,” Brown said. “We know what to expect and we know what we have to do to get where we want to go.”

It was the Shiloh Christian Lady Saints who sent Lonoke home without a title for the third straight year in March. It was a back-and-forth game, just as the Lady ’Rabbits experienced in their previous two finals appearances.

But in the end, the Lady Saints took the big trophy and sent Lonoke home with a 27-7 final record.

“History judges teams,” said Morris, in his fifth year. “I see them finishing off as one of the top teams to come through here, especially those three together. Sometimes I bring that up in conversations with people in town just to see what their take is on it.”

Scribner and Brown first visited Hot Springs’ Summit Arena, the annual site of the state finals, in 2007. They were freshmen on a team that featured another strong senior trio in Calisha Kirk, Kristy Shinn and Jenny Evans.

The opponent that year was old 6AAA Conference rival Central Arkansas Christian. The Lady Mustangs rallied to defeat the Lady ’Rabbits with the help of a few officiating calls many fans recall as questionable.

Lonoke fell just short of beating Huntsville in 2008 and again to Shiloh last spring, but with one chance left to reach the finals and reverse the end results of the previous three years, the Lonoke seniors do not want to miss out.

“I think it’s going to be hard – it’s always hard,” Scribner said. “But we always find a way to do it. We’ve never not went, so we wouldn’t know what it was like not to go now. It would be pretty tough, so expectations are probably very, very high considering we’ve been three years in a row.”

Himstedt had the talent to make the move to varsity as a freshman, as Brown and Scribner did, but Morris held her back to serve as the leader on the freshman team. That separation from her long-time support group allowed Himstedt to develop her game and pick up some leadership skills along the way.

“It was hard,” Himstedt said. “I had always played with them, so I was nervous playing in junior high by myself. But I think I got stronger when I played by myself without them, and it helped them as well.”

The other piece to the Lady Jackrabbit puzzle is junior shooting guard Cara Neighbors. Neighbors led the team in scoring last year and has emerged as a complement to the senior trio.

“We’re like the quad-squad; that’s what we call each other,” Himstedt said. “We just play so well together, it’s like we were meant to play together.”

“Everybody is good at something,” Scribner said. “When it’s all together, it’s like it’s perfect almost. But if one person is not doing what they normally do, it throws the whole routine off because each one of us is good at our own thing. When we’re all together, it’s like this great mix.”

The four have also played summer AAU basketball together on the Arkansas Flash — along with players from the Nettleton/Texarkana/North Little Rock area — with Morris as coach.

Scribner, who signed with UALR earlier this fall, has had a good start, averaging close to 16 points per game.

The conference schedule can be a grind sometimes, the 6-0 post player said, but the challenges presented at the start of postseason play more than compensate.

“That’s why we have those down times,” Scribner said. “In conference, you do the same thing over and over again. You play the same people over and over. But when district and regionals and state roll around, you get something different, and it kind of pumps you up knowing that you get to see somebody different, and you know some different schemes are coming.

“It’s going to get you where you’re trying to go.”

Brown said the conference run toughens the Lady Jackrabbits for the postseason.

“We think it’s going to be hard,” Brown said. “We feel like conference is harder than regionals and state. We have a bunch of tough teams like Stuttgart and Clinton, and we just had a close game with Batesville Southside, so it’s going to be tough.”

After signing with UALR, Scribner quickly learned that being courted by an NCAA Division I program perks up people’s interest more than she expected.

“I had no idea it was going to be what it is,” she said. “It’s a Division I school and everything, but coming from Lonoke and just being who I am, I just didn’t think there was going to be as much attention around here as what it has been.”

While Scribner serves as inside presence at the low post and Himstedt is the perimeter playmaker, Brown is the one who holds it together as the starting point guard.

“Some of the younger players, it’s hard sometimes to get them on our level of what we expect,” Brown said. “That’s what we’re trying to do now. We already know what we all do together; we’re just trying to get everyone else on the same page.”

Morris said he knew he had something special in his trio when he first saw the group in eighth grade and he has enjoyed watching them grow over the past five years. He said he hopes he has something to do with their progress and is looking forward to seeing the girls go on to college.

“It’s really the reason why we coach,” Morris said.

All three are successful in the classroom as well. Brown will graduate in one of the top three spots in her class, with Himstedt and Scribner not far behind in the top 10.

“I tell people all the time that they’re better kids than they are basketball players,” Morris said. “And we know they’re all good basketball players, so that tells you what I think about them as kids.”

There’s no denying the big outside expectations Scribner, Brown and Himstedt face, but for the girls themselves, the only expectation is to win the next one.

“We just play to win – that’s all we do,” Brown said. “We don’t worry about who’s next, we worry about that game and then we move on and worry about the next game.”

Morris relishes the prospect of reaching the state championship game a fourth time, and especially enjoys the opportunity to serve as coach for such an elite unit.

“We feel like we’ve got something left out there to prove,” Morris said. “Certainly, what we’ve done these last three years and what these kids have accomplished have been huge. Not many people get to go through that. I can’t think of another group of kids I would have rather went through this with than them. I tell them that all the time, but those three have been special.”