FORT SMITH, Ark. -- The Northside Lady Bears are back in a familiar spot: the 7A state championship game.
They just didn’t expect to be there this season.
“I can assure you, at the beginning of the season, I didn’t expect to be playing for the state title,” said head coach Rickey Smith.
After graduating five seniors, and returning precisely zero minutes of experience in the 2011 state tournament, the Lady Bears were picked to finish middle-of-the-pack in the 7A-West this year.
All they did, then, was go 29-1 and run the table in conference.
“[The] kids are winners,” Smith said. “I know it’s a coach’s cliché, but our kids are winners, and they have performed very, very well under stressful situations.”
One such situation was the semifinal game this year, which Northside came from behind to win over North Little Rock.
“Last year we upset North Little Rock in the semifinals, and they had a 59 game winning streak,” Smith said. “We celebrated like crazy in the locker room. This year, when we came from behind and beat North Little Rock, we were celebrating, but it wasn’t like last year.”
Smith says he has talked about being “happy to be there,” with his team, and insists that is not an attitude the Lady Bears have.
“I don’t know how the game will come out, but I do know this,” he said. “I know my kids will compete, and from a coaching standpoint, that’s about all you can ask for.”
With just three seniors on the roster and sophomores and juniors playing the bulk of minutes, Smith knows this could be the beginning of a special run for Northside girls basketball.
“We’ve had a lot of good teams. We’ve won a few [state titles], won five of them, but kind of where we were expected to be there, thought we should be there,” he said. “With this team, it’s just out of left field.”
Forgive the coach for mixing sports metaphors. He’s excited to still be playing in the second week of March.
“The way I’m viewing it? Thirty-two minutes,” he said. “You can rest all summer long, but you have 32 minutes to lay it on the line.”
The Lady Bears will face Cabot at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday for the 7A state championship.