The Gray’s Creek girls program has struggled over the last season, with a 2-21 record and finishing dead last in the conference. It is no wonder that when Coach Rick Rhoda took over the program, some deep soul searching needed to be done. This means the soul of the program, of course. Rhoda advised Principal Lisa G. Stewart and Athletic Director Troy Lindsey that he wanted to rebuild the program. And with this rebuild, according to Rhoda, would come pride in girls basketball at Gray’s Creek – just as we have with our softball, soccer, and volleyball programs.

Looking all the way back to the 2006-2007 season, not long after the school’s inception, the Lady Bears have only managed 2 winning seasons. The 2 seasons over 500 featured the very talented Jaelen Autman and Cree Townsend, who are both single season record holders at The Creek. The girls program has only managed a winning percentage of 28%, with an overall record of 83-212 since the, 2006-2007 season.

On day one, Rhoda decided that he, along with his staff and players, needed to change the narrative about girls basketball at Gray’s Creek. This effort to change the narrative would start with some serious “heart to heart” conversations between Rhoda and the girls. The conversations would focus on what people say about Gray’s Creek Girls Basketball and if what people say is true. Rhoda challenged his team to change that narrative by working hard and believing that they could win ball games.

The strategies implemented by Rhoda seemed to be working after the 1st ten or so games. When asked about the differences between last year and this year, Morgan Brady explains that “last year, I was scared to get the ball – now I want the ball in my hands”. “I feel like we played as individuals last year and now we play like a team. We are so much closer to each other this year”, Brady continued. “I think that we want to win and so we put in the effort”, adds Ni’Jaa Wells. Junior guard Savannah Lindsey attributes the team’s early success to their level of commitment and determination to prove the haters wrong.

So what was the plan for success coming in? Rhoda, who came in with high expectations, decided to focus more on fundamentals and skill development rather than too much strategy thrown at the girls all at once. “I believe that good sound fundamentals can solve many problems”, explains Rhoda. “Rather than teach complicated drills and sets, I thought we would get more traction by focusing on the basics first”, he continues. Rhoda says that he tried to get the most out of practice time by using drills that include running, passing, shooting, dribbling, and pivoting, etc. all in one. This way the players get all the important aspects of basketball and they are able to maximize learning within a limited amount of time for practice and workouts.

The journey began with 3 straight losses to Scotland, Pine Forest, and 1st place E.E. Smith. However, the Lady Bears regrouped through constant encouragement from the coaching staff. After the first 3 losses, they were able to win 4 of the next 5 games, with the first win over Southview, which at the time, seemed to be an upset. “I think that everyone thought that the win over Southview was an upset”, says Rhoda. “But, I always knew that we could beat them. We just needed to play our new brand of basketball, which is to play great defense and take our time on offense”, continues Rhoda. There were 3 other conference wins, including Cape Fear, Terry Sanford, and new rival, Overhills. For each of these wins, the Lady Bears were able to win with comfortable margins.

The Bears suffered 2 unfortunate losses in the Cumberland County Schools Holiday Classic, falling to East Bladen and conference foe Cape Fear. They were able to get a win over Terry Sanford to finish out the tournament, for a 7th place finish. The Lady Bears were only able to get wins for 5 of the next 13 games to finish the season at 10-14. “I think we probably should have finished with at least 16 or 17 wins”, explains Rhoda. “Because of a variety of reasons, we didn’t play up to our potential.” Also, there were a few games where we tried new strategies that didn’t work out so well”, he continues. Rhoda added that those new strategies were more about next season than the current season and he explained that it was important to start looking forward to next season during the current season.

With all that being said, let’s delve into the moving parts of this new machine. The Bears are propped up by the scoring of senior Ni’Jaa Wells (13.4 ppg), Morgan Brady (10 ppg), and Maddie Smith (8 ppg). This trio accounts for almost all of the Lady Bears’ team scoring average of 38. Each of these players, with the exception of Maddie Smith, has improved their scoring over last season. For the 2018-19 season, Wells averaged 6.3 points per game and Morgan Brady averaged less than 3 points per game. The team averaged just 21 points per game last year.

With these numbers, Wells and Brady are among the scoring leaders in the conference. Wells ended the season at 6th in scoring with 13.4 points per game while she is shooting an impressive 50% from the field. Due to these numbers, Wells was received 1st team All-Conference honors in the Patriot Athletic Conference. Morgan Brady ended the season with 10 points per game and held 2nd place in 3-point shots made (41) and takes 12th in the conference in scoring, 6th in the conference in steals, 2nd in the conference in blocks (1.3 per game), and she led the conference in charges taken (8 for the season). For her efforts, Brady received 2nd team All-Conference honors. Maddie Smith took 2nd place in the conference in free throws an impressive 100 made and shot an impressive 79% from the line, which is 1st place in the conference. Smith also took the 9th spot in the conference with 2.4 assists per game.

Be assured that there is more to the Lady Bears than just scoring. The defense is led by senior defensive specialist Tishera Owens and Morgan Brady. “Tish is that player that you put on a team’s best player”, explains Rhoda. “She just gets basketball and it makes coaching defense so much easier”, he adds. “If I could only get Tish back for just one more year”, laments Rhoda.

It is an understatement to say that it is exciting to watch the Lady Bears play. The Bears have truly changed the narrative. It is evident in conversations in hallways at Gray’s Creek. It is also evident as parents and teachers are speaking with pride about the accomplishments of the squad so early in their overhaul. “It’s amazing how many coaches have called me with congratulations about what our girls are doing”, says Rhoda. “Everyone seems happy about our success. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when a team believes in each other and each of the girls decides that they will play for each other and not themselves”, Rhoda continues.

Rhoda explained the goal from the beginning was to not only improve on their record from last year; but he challenged the girls to make the state playoffs. While the girls were on pace to make the state playoffs at one time, for a variety of reasons, they were not able to pull it off. However, it is obvious that the Bears are off to making a great turnaround for the program.

Moving forward, the Bears will need to put together winning seasons in order to grow the program. In order to achieve winning seasons, the program will have to grow the program from those early ages. “We will have to reach girls at a young age and train them to play basketball”, says Rhoda. “I think it will be even more important to somehow teach them to love the game”, he continues.

Rhoda also believes that it is necessary to reach out to the recreational league coaches as well as the middle school coaches to form alliances. These alliances will help to prepare girls for the pace, complexities, and the intensity of high school basketball, which will help Gray’s Creek Girls Basketball be much more competitive in the coming years. Changing the narrative for the girls basketball program seems to be well underway. However, it is reasonable to expect that there may be bumps in the road, which is normal for building great programs. Time will tell for the Lady Bears, and more specifically, the next 2 to 3 years.

Bears Sports Network

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