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Jonesboro loss gives way to expectations

Photo by Jerry Jackson
Jonesboro guard Briana Benson (4) is among a deep group of juniors returning next season for the Lady Cardinals that will try to match the feat of a 25-6 record and semifinals appearance.

Photo by Jerry Jackson Jonesboro guard Briana Benson (4) is among a deep group of juniors returning next season for the Lady Cardinals that will try to match the feat of a 25-6 record and semifinals appearance.

By Brian Paglia

bpaglia@news-daily.com

This trip was different. Unlike in 2009, when Jonesboro arrived in Gwinnett with a senior-laden team for its first semifinal in school history, the Lady Cardinals appeared this season with one young at its core. Most of Jonesboro’s players came not to put the final punctuation on their high school career, but to gain experience with each step.

Jonesboro recap

The season: The Lady Cardinals finished 25-6 and the Region 4-AAAA championship. Jonesboro lost 51-35 to Southwest DeKalb in the Class AAAA semifinals, its first semifinals appearance since 2009 and second in school history.

Who Jonesboro loses: Among the four seniors Jonesboro will graduate, forward Alexcia Cross figures to be the toughest to replace. Jonesboro coach Michael House called Cross “the team’s toughest player,” and she was also one of its most versatile.

Who’s back: The Lady Cardinals will return nine players, including four starters, most notably Briana Benson, Kimberly Dawkins and Victoria Florence. And freshmen Mahogany Hall, Michaelle Smith and Amoni Walker gained valuable experience.

Looking ahead: With four starters and depth behind them returning, Jonesboro figures to be ranked in the top 5 — if not the top 2 or 3 — entering next season, with expectations to return to the semifinals.

By the number: 13. Jonesboro’s longest winning streak this season, which ended in the semifinals against Southwest DeKalb.

Coach Michael House says: “I'm really proud of my girls. They did a great job, a remarkable season. We were picked third or fourth in the region and we finished third or fourth in the state. They did a great job.”

Now, after losing 51-35 to Southwest DeKalb on Wednesday in the Class AAAA semifinals, this Jonesboro team will face a challenge its previous semifinals one never encountered — expectations.

That’s the burden that comes with returning four starters and four key reserves off a team that finished 25-6 and reached as high as No. 2 in the state rankings.

But, even in the immediate aftermath of their disappointing performance Wednesday, Lady Cardinals coach Michael House seemed ready to confront that challenge.

“All of our kids have bright futures,” he said. “This is a great mark and a great standard that we’ve set that we’re going to build on for next year.”

Building off of four returning starters won’t be the hard part. Guards Briana Benson, Ashley Hand and Victoria Florence have been at the center of Jonesboro’s three-year rebuilding process and figure to again form one of the top backcourts in the state next season. Center Kimberly Dawkins transferred from Lovejoy and gelled immediately, giving Jonesboro a formidable presence inside with her rebounding and shot-blocking.

Of Jonesboro’s four graduating players, small forward Alexcia Cross figures to be the hardest to replace. House called her “the team’s toughest player,” one willing to dive for loose balls and embrace her role on the team.

But the Lady Cardinals appear to have the depth ready to step in. There’s junior Kenisha Reeves, another slashing guard to add to the mix, and freshmen Mahogany Hall, Michaelle Smith and Amoni Walker, each of whom saw valuable time on the court against Southwest DeKalb.

So while the Xs and Os of Jonesboro may not transform significantly next season, everything swirling around the Lady Cardinals will.

Already in the minds of high school basketball predictors, Jonesboro is a certain team with definite expectations.

Dawkins, for one, is already aware of it. When asked to assess what kind of team Jonesboro could become next season, she was succinct and confidant.

“A Final Four team,” she said.