Earlier this year the onset of the coronavirus pandemic played havoc with sports teams at every level across the country as health officials and government leaders scrambled to slow the spread of the virus. Unfortunately for the Greenwood Lady Bulldogs varsity basketball team, the shutdown of sporting events and schools across the land cost them a chance to play for a championship just days before their scheduled tip-off in the 5A state finals in Hot Springs.
The Arkansas Activities Association (AAA) did their best to mitigate the lost opportunity by awarding state championships to both the Lady Bulldogs and the Lady Raiders of Nettleton High School in Jonesboro. The two teams are considered co-champions by some people, but GHS Head Coach Clay Reeves has a slightly different opinion on the matter.
“I see a trophy setting in my office that says state champions on it, that the AAA sent us,” he said. “The banner says champion and the rings say champion. There’s a handful of people that like to say co-champion, but there are 32 teams in our classification, and two of us are champions, because the AAA recognized us as champions.
“It’s not the way either team wanted it, but that is what we are,” he asserted. “I’m taking nothing away from our kids. There’s no “co” in it for me whatsoever, because our kids did everything they were asked to do and required to do, and that’s the way it ended, and I’m leaving it at that.”
The highly successful Reeves certainly has the credentials to support his view, with eight state titles now dotting his impressive resume, three at Greenland and five at Greenwood. He is ably assisted by Ryan Lensing, a former GHS player now in his third season with the Lady Bulldogs. And if tradition holds, their current team may be playing for yet another state championship next March, this time against a real flesh-and-blood opponent, not a microscopic virus.
Despite losing two key senior starters to graduation the Lady Bulldogs are loaded with returning talent and experience, supplemented by another promising crop of sophomores. The GHS girls may have half-a-dozen guards who could start for any team in the state, four of them seniors who have played together since junior high. As freshman, this foursome contributed heavily to a team that reached the state finals in 2018.
Those players include fourth-year lettermen Kinley Fisher, Ally Sockey, Haven Clements, and Shea Goodwin, and it’s doubtful a better quartet of guards exists anywhere else in Arkansas on the same team. Along with Evan Brown, these five make up the team’s senior class, and all of them can play.
According to Reeves, the first four are all likely starters with Brown coming off the bench, giving the Lady Bulldogs one of the most experienced teams in the state. Add to that mix super sophomore Mady Cartwright and junior teammates Abby Summitt and Megan Gray, all guards, and Coach Reeves has a lethal mix of talent, speed, experience, and court savvy to throw at their opponents in the upcoming season.
“We’ve got a lot of returning players that had a ton of minutes [last season],” said Reeves. “Having a lot of older kids, especially [those] four seniors, helps me tremendously as a coach. This is their fourth year in varsity, and they understand everything that we’re doing. That makes it easy for me.”
Asked about the off-season interrupted by Covid-19, the coach said, “We had most of our players when we started back in June. I would have liked to have been in here all spring, but fortunately we’re blessed to have a lot of players returning who understand everything that we’re doing. So it didn’t really get us behind with the returning players.
“All the players that moved up, it probably slowed them down a little on the learning process of understanding everything. But they’ve done a great job of catching up and getting help from the older kids,” he added.
Among the players lost to graduation were two starters – Harley Terry and Jaelin Glass – the two biggest bodies on the floor for Reeves at 5-11 each. Terry played the post position, mostly for defense, while Glass was more of an offensive player, typically scoring in double digits every game. Her height and long reach also made her a defensive asset as well. Both ladies will be missed, but the coach is confident he has plenty of girls left to take up the slack.
Besides Terry, Haven Clements and Abby Summitt both saw time in the middle last season and can help out this year as well, though much of the playing time at the post position is expected to go to sophomore newcomer Adriana Rusin.
“Defensively, we put kids where we feel they are the strongest,” said Reeves, referring to Rusin, who is listed as a guard. “Offensively, we’re pretty guard oriented. But Adrianna has been playing really well in the post spot also. We will be one of the smallest teams in our classification, so post offense is not one of the things we are stressing. We still work on it, but we know we’re a more guard-oriented team.
“Adrianna is doing what we need her to do in that spot. She’s going to become an overall player (inside and outside) as her season and career progresses. But [at the post] is where we need the most help, and she’s capable in that particular position. She’s only about 5-7 or 5-8, but she’s pretty tough on defending inside.”
Asked about his team’s lack of size this season, Reeves said, “Our two tallest players are probably [sophomore] Madi Cartwright and [freshman] Anna Trusty. Both are 5-11 and they are outside players,” adding that big guards often cause match-up problems for the defense. “We work on trying to get mismatches. They still have to guard us,” he explained.
As for his returning super seniors, Reeves had words of high praise for all of them, starting with Haven Clements. “She always puts out the best effort. She goes after every rebound. She’s the type of [kid] that people refer to as a “junk” player. She does all the [little] things that we need done. She’s capable of scoring a lot of points also. She does that when she needs to, but she does all the intangibles on the floor all the time.
“Ally Sockey [also] does a great job. She plays with a lot of energy and hustles. She’s a good defender and ball handler. One of her strengths is taking it to the basket and beating people off the dribble and making things happen. Her perimeter shooting has [improved] too, hitting shots from the outside.
“Kinley Fisher has been one of the leading scorers in the state the last couple of years,” continued Reeves. “She brings back a lot of experience and does a great job taking care of the ball and creating shots for herself and for others. When she draws a lot of attention, which she does, that opens it up for a lot of other players to make plays.
“Shea Goodwin is one of our best defenders and ball handlers and one of our top assist leaders. She does a great job of doing the things she needs to do. If she needs to score for us, she can score a lot. If we’re winning and she’s got seven or eight assists and she doesn’t score a point, she feels good about it. She wants our team to win. But if she needs to score 10 points a game for us to win, she’s very capable of doing that also,” said the coach.
“We talked about the chemistry and identity of our team. Those [four seniors] have played as many minutes as anybody the last four years. Sometimes they’re out there together and sometimes they are split up. My plan is for all four of them to start and be out there the majority of the time, and see how things flow going along.
“Evan Brown is also a senior and has become a good offensive player. She can shoot and drive and create things, and we expect her to be able to help us and hit some shots and make things happen for us on offense. She played in junior high, and didn’t play in 10th grade, but she’s back to where she needs to be,” assessed Reeves.
Asked about his fifth starter for Saturday’s regular season opener at home against Lake Hamilton, the coach identified his choice as Madi Cartwright. “As of Saturday, when we play our first game, that’s my fifth starter.” Cartwright played a lot of minutes as a freshman last season, and not just in a mop up role. By mid-season she was in the regular rotation and was viewed as a reliable scorer and defender.
“We are blessed to have three or four other players who are very capable of starting also, and that helps with our depth. That’s one of our strengths,” said Reeves, further explaining that team depth will allow him to keep his players fresh and energized during the game and throughout the long season.
Also playing significant roles this coming season will be juniors Abby Summitt and Megan Gray. “Abby came on strong later [last] year and started hitting the outside shot for us. She did a good job on defense and rebounding and ball handling. We’re playing her at guard on offense, and defensively she plays wherever we need. We expect good things from her again.
“Megan always puts out 100% effort,” Reeves continued. “She’s a really good three-point shooter and has improved tremendously on her drives and making plays for herself and for others. She will be out there a lot also.”
The GHS head coach also has a tradition of moving up talented freshmen to play on the varsity squad, and this season is no different. “Anna Trusty moved up and we feel like she’s going to play a lot of minutes for us. She got a lot of experience in junior high and understands the game well. She’s tall and a really good driver, and has improved a lot on her outside shooting. We expect her to help us a lot also.”
Along with their experience and depth, speed and quickness will be among this team’s biggest assets, said Reeves. “[But] our kids know if we need to slow it down for our benefit – I don’t see that happening often – they are very capable of taking care of the ball and holding it if that’s what we need to do.”
As always, the Lady Bulldogs have a loaded non-conference schedule, made even tougher this season due to Covid-19, which eliminated all tournament play in November and December. Instead, Reeves has populated his schedule with several of the top 6A teams in the state.
“The first half of our season we’re playing the best teams in the state night after night,” he boasted. “The first semester, with the tournaments being cancelled, we had to find other games, and all those [coaches] were like me, looking to play the best in the state. I think that’s going to help us when we start playing conference [games] in January.”
Among the notable opponents are Class 5A Lake Hamilton (Saturday), and 6A schools North Little Rock, Conway, Bentonville (twice), Fayetteville, Springdale Har-Ber, Fort Smith Northside, Jacksonville, and 4A Farmington.
“That’s some of the best girls basketball teams in the state,” added the coach. “[But] that’s never bothered me as far as wins and losses. We want to be the best we can be when it comes to March and the state tournament, and that’s worked for us [in the past].”
As for the 5A West slate, the coach was less certain. “Looking at that non-conference schedule, I haven’t thought about conference much yet. Vilonia probably returns a lot of players too, and they were one of the top teams last year. After that, all the teams in our conference return several players.”
Reeves also acknowledged that new conference members Mountain Home and Van Buren both have long-standing traditions of winning basketball. “Alma has a lot of players back and their program is going in the right direction, and Russellville has a new coach.” Other league teams include Siloam Springs and Greenbrier.
Asked about their precautions regarding Covid-19, the coach said, “Our kids wear a mask when they are required too. We try to keep our distance in practice when they are not participating, during breaks and in the dressing room. We have to stay on top of that. I’ve got a big list, such as our seats being further apart [on the bench].
“Some of our kids will be up in the bleachers. Some of the places we play, they may even be facing me on the other side. Some of our managers will be in the bleachers [too]. A little more distance on the bus and wearing a mask on the bus. [But] it’s the same for everybody. We talk about the safety of wearing a mask, washing our hands, and keeping our distance. We’ll see how it goes.” Reeves added that his team’s depth could be a key factor in making it through a season played under the threat of the coronavirus.
However one wishes to categorize the Lady Bulldogs, it must be recognized that they are among the best teams in the state year-after-year, regardless of classification, and the 2020-21 season appears to be no exception. The trick now is to get through the season relatively unscathed by the virus so they can complete their mission of returning to Hot Springs next March to actually play the state title game that was so unfairly taken from them earlier this year.