Photo by Derrick Mahone
Jonesboro sophomore Michaelle Smith (No. 42) and coach Lamar Harris will make the trek to Fort Valley on Saturday as the Lady Cardinals take on defending state champion Columbia in a Class AAAA semifinals game.
JONESBORO — Kimberly Dawkins doesn’t know much about two-time state champion Columbia.
But one thing she does know is that they can’t be any faster or stronger than what she’s faced each day in practice.
That’s because Dawkins, and her Lady Cardinals teammates have been testing their mettle against boys from Jonesboro’s junior varsity and varsity basketball teams since December.
“No girl is as fast or as strong as the boys,” Dawkins said. “So after we’ve practiced against them it gets us ready. Whatever (Columbia) will bring to the table, we know we’re capable of rising to the challenge.”
Said senior guard Raven Wynn: “Practicing the boys, it just makes us stronger and it has made us play harder than normal.”
Jonesboro coach Eric Harris knows that pitting his girls up against the boys players will bring a little extra physicality to practices — which is exactly what he wants.
“We invited some of those guys in and they’ve come on board to help us,” Harris said. “It puts things at a much faster pace. They come in and rough em up a bit. It helps put them more at ease in actual games. The pace slows down and they’re more comfortable with what they see.”
Lately the Lady Cardinals, with their 23-game winning streak, have looked very comfortable in their pursuit of a state championship.
Jonesboro (26-3), making its second straight Class AAAA semifinals appearance, is looking to dissolve the bad taste that lingers from its 51-35 semifinal loss to Southwest DeKalb last season.
The big three — Dawkins, Briana Benson and Victoria Florence — that paced the Cardinals’ 2011-12 run is intact for this go round also. With a year of experience under their belts and the adjustment to first-year coach Eric Harris’ way of doing things, the Cardinals believe they are primed to finish what they started last season.
“Our chemistry has gotten better as the season progressed,” said senior guard Raven Wynn. “And our defense as well.”
Defense is what Harris preaches, along with the notion of preparing for each new game as if it were the previous one.
“I tell them all the time and have told them now, it’s just another game,” Harris said. “That’s the way we practice and prepare. If we find ourselves making too many adjustments then we have a problem. That means that we weren’t prepared.”
Jonesboro’s opponent in Saturday’s semifinal matchup at Fort Valley State hasn’t had to make many adjustments either, despite sporting a youthful lineup and progressing through a new region.
Columbia, winners of two of the last three Class AAA state championships — including last season’s title — has just three seniors on its entire team. Coach Chantay Frost, now in her fifth year, said that in many ways this season has felt like her first.
“It’s almost like starting all over again,” Frost said. “We’re working on a new class of girls. We’re trying to get them to totally buy into the Lady Eagles way; and we’re making them mature faster than what they probably want.”
Frost said that the adjustment from Class AAA to AAAA wasn’t bad because the No. 6 Eagles are accustomed to playing tough non-region schedules that often feature teams in other classifications.
And while Frost said she doesn’t know much about Jonesboro, the little that she has noticed gives her an ideas of what to expect Saturday night.
“I’ve seen them play once or twice. I haven’t seen a whole lot, but I know they are pretty athletic and a pretty fast paced team,” Frost said. “That’s probably what they’re going to bring to the game. I just want to concentrate on us and make sure we get this right on our end.”
Frost said she doesn’t really etch a starting lineup in stone, opting instead to tweak it game by game according to performance in practice. But senior Miah Spencer is a dangerous scorer who is capable from filling it up from the perimeter or inside the paint.
As for how Jonesboro will matchup against the versatile Eagles, Harris said he sees some things he feels his team can capitalize on. But as always, he said his main emphasis will be on his own team’s execution.
“Any game we look for advantages,” Harris said. “They have young bigs, but I’m confident in how both our guards and our bigs can matchup against them. The main thing for us is to focus on us. Don’t get caught up in the hype or the emotions of the game. We just need to go out and play and do the things that got us here.”