Great expectations pay off with gold ball

By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal

NEW ALBANY – John Stroud knows all about the pressure of living up to preseason expectations.
“It’s harder when you know you’re supposed to win,” said the New Albany Lady Bulldogs basketball coach, who directed his team to a 29-4 record and a state championship.
The 2011 Daily Journal Girls Coach of the Year is just glad he survived all the season-long expectations and returned to Union County with a gold ball.
New Albany entered the season with all five starters back, including a highly-touted sophomore forward in Jazmine Spears. Those starters had a 58-6 record over two seasons. The Lady Bulldogs also finished 32-1 in 2010, losing only in the state championship game.
“I’ve never had a 32-1 team that had everybody coming back,” said Stroud, who has coached 25 years and won three state titles. “What can you do? You have to win the state championship.
Just do it
“It would have been a total disappointment and letdown had we not won state. We knew we were supposed to win all year long … we just had to go out and do it.”
New Albany did “do it,” beating Lawrence County, 71-61, last month to win the MHSAA Class 4A state championship.
Stroud, the former Ole Miss standout and Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, believed his toughest task during the season was keeping his players focused.
“It was really tough when school started back,” he said. “Everybody had their head in the clouds. We were preseason No. 1. It was going to be a cakewalk.
“It wasn’t challenging from the Xs and Os side. It was challenging to get the girls mentally ready to play.”
Kebrina Lucas, a senior guard, admitted she and her teammates played “laid-back” in some games. “We felt good about our game,” she said. “We knew we could win when we played up to our potential.”
The players were masters of Stroud’s slower tempo style of play.
“We made a commitment to play halfcourt,” he said. “Play a matchup zone (defense), get the high percentage shot, get the ball inside. Because we’re not run and gun people say New Albany’s not good, but that’s our trademark.
“A 62-52 score may not be impressive, but the way we play, a 10-point lead is safe.”
Stroud is going to miss his senior starters – Lucas, Nyambi Penson, Micha Washington and Porche White – and the reserves, including his daughter, Caroline, Paris Sanders, Jasmine Knox and Marquita Young.
“It was a confident, not cocky, group,” he said. “They had a high basketball IQ. They may not have been as gifted as others, but they were winners. They were not going to get beat.
“Winning the state championship was a great ending for them.”