By Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal
NEW ALBANY – Raymond High School’s girls basketball team had a motivational sign hanging in its gym late last season that simply read: 32-1.
The players on the squad understood the numerical message – hang a loss on undefeated New Albany and win a Class 4A state championship.
Raymond did take home a gold ball with a 64-58 victory at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, while the losing team was left to ponder a 2011 return to the Big House.
New Albany’s coach, John Stroud, who knew he had every starter from his club returning, told reporters he didn’t plan to return to Jackson in 2011 with an unbeaten team.
“We won’t be undefeated,” he promised. “We’re going to play a tougher schedule.”
However, despite a beefed-up slate – one that included 6A Columbus and Tennessee power Briarcrest – Stroud’s Lady Bulldogs took an 11-0 record to Fort Smith, Ark., for its pre-Christmas Tournament of Champions.
New Albany, which has been ranked nationally this season, suffered two losses on its trip to Arkansas – falling 56-44 to Ozark, Mo., and 70-56 to DeSoto, Texas. The Bulldogs beat Greenwood, Texas, 55-51 to finish 1-2 on the road trip.
“We saw some good teams with good players up there,” Stroud said earlier this week. “All eight schools were either state champions or runners-up.
“Our girls got a chance to see size, the kind we don’t see around here. We saw 6-footers who can shoot. We also saw some things we need to work on.”
Stroud, who never wants to lose, believes the losses will hopefully send a loud and clear message to his team: “You can be beat.”
One of New Albany’s young stars, sophomore forward Jazmine Spears, believes the team learned a few things on its trip to Arkansas.
“Those teams gave it all they had, they played four quarters, not two,” she said. “We have a hard time doing that. We don’t play until we have to … that’s not good.”
Stroud recognizes that fact, too.
“They can be complacent, just go through the motions,” he said. “They’ve won a lot of games (72-7 record over three seasons). They’re playing around with teams and winning close games, games that two years ago would have been blowouts.
“We can be average, then go on a 20-2 run.”
New Albany, which defeated once-beaten Division 1-4A rival Itawamba AHS 56-43 Tuesday night, takes a 13-2 overall record into tonight’s game against powerful Myrtle, a 1A finalist last year.
Later this season, the Bulldogs will play Alabama heavyweight Bob Jones and a nationally-ranked Memphis Central club.
“I’m pleased with our schedule … Briarcrest, the Arkansas trip,” Stroud said. “I do think it would make our players hungrier if we lost to a Mississippi team.”
Just not in the state finals … right, coach?
Contact Gene Phelps at 678-1593