MURFREESBORO — After making a state tournament field, the next thing a team worries about is who they will play and where they fall in the brackets.
For Bradley Central the TSSAA Girls State Championship blind draw went about as good as it could have Sunday afternoon in Murfreesboro, although the Bearettes will open play Wednesday against seventh-ranked Memphis Ridgeway.
“If you had told me on the way up we’d be playing Ridgeway, I’da took it,” expressed Bearette head coach Jason Reuter. “Everybody (coaches) coming up here wanted to avoid playing Blackman (ranked No. 1 in the AP state poll as well as the USA TODAY and Maxpreps national polls) in the first round, and we did.”
In fact, Bradley being put in the opposite end of the eight-team bracket from the Lady Blaze, whom the Bearettes defeated in last year’s sectional to advance to the 2013 state tournament, was already determined before the coaches gathered for the draw.
Being pre-seated at the same table with the powerful Murfreesboro team coaches seemed to be an ominous sign before the event. But when TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress began explaining the AAA draw, noting that because six of the teams come from three regions and must be separated — and the same is true for Bradley and Blackman — Reuter, assistant coaches Katie Frazier and Amy Tinsley, plus Principal Todd Shoemaker, each breathed a heavy sign of relief.
“Neither me nor the Blackman coach (Chad Hibdon) realized that before it was explained,” Reuter related. “That was a pleasant surprise.”
Ridgeway and Houston both come from Region 8, Morristown-West and Jefferson County from Region 1, plus Rossview and Mount Juliet are from Region 5, while Bradley is the Region 3 champion and Blackman won the Region 4 title.
The Bearettes (26-5) and Ridgeway (28-3) will take the Murphy Center court at Middle Tennessee State Wednesday for the 12:30 (11:30 CST) Class AAA quarterfinal contest, while fourth-ranked Morristown-West (30-3) will battle Rossview (28-3) in the day’s opener. The two Wednesday winners will tangle Friday at 11 a.m. in the semifinals.
Bradley not only avoided an early game against Blackman (31-1), but third-ranked Mount Juliet (29-1) as well as the Lady Blaze will open against Houston (26-7) and the Lady Bears will tangle with Jefferson County (27-11) Wednesday afternoon. Blackman and Mount Juliet would meet in a Friday in the other semifinal game, should they win their openers.
“There are only four ranked teams in the field, but that really doesn’t mean anything at this point,” Reuter stated. “Each team that is here deserves to be here and will be a tough matchup for anyone else.”
As far as the Bearettes’ opponent goes, Reuter said, “We don’t much about the Memphis teams, because they are so far away. From what I have found out so far, they are a lot like us — two ‘bigs’ (a pair of 6-foot-2 post players), good guards, they don’t press much and prefer to play a half-court style game.”
Making their first state tournament appearance in nine years, the Roadrunners have just one senior on their squad — 5-foot-10 swing player Ansley Jackson, who has signed to play NCAA D-I ball for Old Dominion this fall.
When coach Rhonda Kendall took over the program three years ago, she was left with just one returning starter and only five players altogether. The 18-year coaching veteran who came over from Cordova High School has led Ridgeway to 70 victories and just 16 defeats since taking the reins. “I turned the (Ridgeway) job down three times before I finally took it,” she related.
“When I got here, they hadn’t won any championships for a while,” Kendall said. “Last year we won our district, a Christmas tournament and the city championship. This year we won the city title and were district and region runner-up, so we’re doing some things they haven’t done in the past, and I keep reminding my girls of that.
“This is a special team to me because I came in with them. They can make a statement for Ridgeway girls basketball,” she added.
Other Roadrunner starters include junior guards Oreonna Brown (5-foot-8) and Alexus Bryson (5-foot-5), as well as 5-foot-10 junior Tierany Paylor and 6-foot-2 post Kendra Boone. Normally coming off the bench is another 6-foot-2 post, junior Eryn Foster, who scored 18 points in Ridgeway’s 64-58 victory over Bolton in Saturday’s sectional game.
“We can go small and quick, but I like playing with my two bigs and our athletic guards,” related Coach Kendall, whose team defeated state championship teams from both Mississippi and Alabama this season. “We are a young team, but we’ve gone through some adversity. I’m a little surprised we’ve gotten this far, this quick, but the girls have worked hard.”
Of the three Roadrunner losses this season, two have come to fellow state tournament participant Houston, in the District 15-AAA and Region 8 title games. Ridgeway opened the season with 11 straight wins, before suffering their only regular season loss to MHEA, a Memphis home school group. They bounced back with a 12-game winning streak.
Bradley is making its 27th appearance and playing in its 63rd state tournament game. The back-to-back state berths are the first for the Bearettes since legendary Coach Jim Smiddy did so in 1986 and 1987.
The return to Murfreesboro is extra sweet for Reuter, whose 6-foot-3 daughter Rebecca had to sit out last year’s state tournament game against Science Hill, due to having picked up the only two technicals of her career in the substate victory. The resulting ejection meant she had to sit out a two-game suspension.
“She and I made a pact to get her back to Murfreesboro,” related her father and coach. “It will be very special to go back with my daughter. Her hitting the game-winning shot (Saturday night) to get us there is just basketball karma.”
The younger Reuter, who will be playing for MTSU this fall, took a pass from Florida signee Brooke Copeland and put in an 8-foot bank shot with four seconds to go in the 37-36 victory over ninth-ranked Oakland in the sectional game at Jim Smiddy Arena.
“Brooke and Becca have had tremendous careers here at Bradley, and to get to finish them up at the state tournament is only fitting,” proclaimed Coach Reuter.
The “Twin Towers” will be trying to lead the Bearettes to their first state tournament victory since 2000, when Coach Jack Harlow’s squad advanced to the state semifinals with a win over Sullivan East.