SPORTS >> Searcy girls aim for heights at Summit
By JASON KING
Searcy’s past and the present collided in the run-up to today’s 6A girls state championship between the Lady Lions and Watson Chapel at Hot Springs’ Summit Arena.
On Thursday, Danny Crow, who coached the Lady Lions during their state championship run in 1984-85, sat in the office of current coach Michelle Birdsong and offered encouragement. He departed with a hug and one last good word before Birdsong and assistant Larry Stamps prepared for the team’s last practice in their home gymnasium.
But the era of four classifications — in which Crow led his Lady Lions, then a AAA team, to a 31-2 record and Searcy’s only state basketball title — is long gone. And while the challenge may be different for Birdsong in this era of physical and frantic styles of play, the tradition and pride remain.
“It’s definitely been different here this week than any other week,” Birdsong said. “Because there is so much stuff going on. It’s been quite hectic. We have been having a little trouble getting our focus, but they haven’t been too lax or too goofy, although when we’re goofy, we’re pretty good.”
Searcy takes pride in its senior corps of post player Lauren Harrison, forward Kristen Celsor and point guard Caleigh Woodruff.
Harrison, 6-2, and Celsor, 5-11, made waves in their sophomore seasons and have made the recent media rounds as the Lady Lions’ twin towers and leading scorers.
But it’s the unsung dirty work of Woodruff, 5-5, that Birdsong credits for much of Searcy’s success.
“I think one aspect that doesn’t get talked about as much is our third senior,” Birdsong said. “And that’s Caleigh Woodruff. Caleigh’s been our floor runner all year, so she’s handled all this pressure.
“We changed up our defense occasionally and had to go to a box and one, and Caleigh’s been the one we called upon to defend their best player. That’s one thing that kind of gets overlooked, because those stats don’t go in the paper.”
Woodruff tried to keep excitement from turning into nervousness during the week, but the smallest of the senior trio said she is ready to prove doubters wrong one last time.
“We’re extremely excited, but I’m starting to feel the nerves though,” Woodruff said. “We just really want to win. I don’t think people expected us to get this far, and we knew we could if we played our game.”
Searcy’s season started with a tough loss to Vilonia, but after that, the Lady Lions won their next 13. That included their first three 6A-East Conference games, but a 59-49 loss to Little Rock Parkview on Jan. 19 began a four-game skid that jeopardized their season.
The Lady Lions rebounded to close out league play as the No. 3 seed to the state tournament, and they have now won nine straight.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Celsor said. “Coming out of conference, I wasn’t sure if we were going to make it, but we’re playing like we did in preseason again and it feels really good. We just didn’t want to go out like we ended our conference. We wanted to make a name for ourselves and let everyone know we weren’t done yet.”
Today will be Celsor’s final high school basketball game, but she plans on defending her state heptathlon title in May.
“I’m missing a lot of weeks of training that I had last year,” Celsor said. “So I guess I’ll have to work a lot harder a lot faster this year.”
Searcy’s game is not all about Harrison and Celsor being big bodies, Birdsong said. Their experience and leadership is seen over the entire court.
“They’ve played a lot, and they have a lot of experience,” Birdsong said. “We definitely look to them. Even when we have trouble bringing the ball down the floor, we’ve asked Lauren to bring the ball down the floor, and she’s our biggest player. A lot of the things we do go through them.”
The Lady Lions began their run to Hot Springs with a 57-41 victory over Benton in the first round of the state tournament. A 65-56 victory over Texarkana in the quarterfinals left Searcy as the last team from the East after Pine Bluff knocked off Parkview earlier the same day.
That set up a showdown with Pine Bluff in the semifinals, where Searcy punched its ticket to the final with a 53-39 victory.
Harrison said the Texarkana game was the Lady Lions’ best performance, with the semifinal victory over Pine Bluff a close second. But for all the ups and downs, one theme remains constant with Harrison — teamwork.
“We have some great chemistry,” Harrison said. “Our whole team, specifically the seniors. We kind of caved to some of the pressure early, and after we lost our first one, we kind of got in a rut. We got down on ourselves, but after the third one, coach grabbed us up and gave us a talk, and got us back to where we needed to be.”
It may be the Lady Lions’ first trip to the state finals in 25 years, but it’s Birdsong’s first trip period. Now in her fifth year at Searcy, Birdsong spent 10 years as head coach at Jonesboro.
Many believed Searcy could contend three years ago with a strong roster that included post player Taylor Clark, guard Kayla Medley and current Harding University sophomore Kallie Bartee.
But the Lady Lions fell out in the early rounds, which led to rebuilding by Birdsong and the emergence of her current senior leaders.
While Birdsong says her team is not all about her big post players, she admits size is the factor that separates this team from the one that fell short three years ago.
“I’ll tell you one thing that happened to us when we had that group is we ran into Lake Hamilton,” Birdsong said. “And they had two big girls that we could not play against. Well, we’ve got the big girls now, so maybe that’s going to be the difference.”