As much as Dutchtown's girls basketball team is fixated on advancing to the Final Four of the state tournament, another goal looms. It is an endeavor that eluded the Lady Bulldogs three times last season. It is an endeavor they use to measure their own ability and potential as a state contender.
When Dutchtown (2-0) hosts Jonesboro (2-1) tonight at 6 p.m., it will be the first chance for the Lady Bulldogs to test themselves against their greatest nemesis last season.
The Lady Cardinals, ranked No. 4 in the Gasports.com Class AAAA pre-season poll, defeated Dutchtown twice last season in the regular season 60-52 on Dec. 2 and 60-42 on Jan. 16. They met again in the Region 4-AAAA tournament final, but the outcome was the same. Jonesboro held on for a 41-36 win.
For the Lady Bulldogs' returning players, a win against Jonesboro would be significant.
"They felt like that was one of the big challenges that they didn't complete last year," Dutchtown coach Angela Williams said, "which was coming out with a win against Jonesboro."
Jonesboro plowed through many teams on its path to last season's Final Four, which the Lady Cardinals lost 43-41 to Fayette County. During a remarkable run of 30 straight victories leading up to the Final Four, few teams offered Jonesboro legitimate competition. But Dutchtown did.
The match-up offered compelling games with intriguing storylines. Both teams had first-year head coaches. Both teams had two of the Southern Crescent's most dynamic backcourts. Each game seemingly held in the balance first-place in the region.
But much has changed since last season, at least for Jonesboro. Former Lady Cardinals coach Jimmy Fields abruptly left over the summer to become athletic director and assistant principal at Twiggs County. Four seniors graduated, including three starters and three players now playing Division I basketball.
But in came Michael House from Cedar Shoals as head coach. Back comes several key pieces from last season's Final Four team guard Laquinta Gallashaw and forwards Jasmine Manning and Kayla Dowdell.
So Williams doesn't expect a drop-off from Jonesboro.
"Jonesboro is usually very talented and they usually have some athletic girls. I really don't see them losing a step this year," Williams said. "I know they have a lot of newcomers and freshman that are coming in, but from what I hear, they're very poised, so they actually contribute to that program."
Styles are so mirrored between the teams that the game's outcome usually hinges on the strategizing by each coach. Both teams favor an up-tempo game using full-court presses to initiate their transition offense.
Stopping each other comes down to which coach best manipulates the other team's offensive rhythm. And that comes down to knowing what defense to use and when.
"It becomes a real chess match," Williams said.
One Dutchtown hopes it can finally win.