Three Rivers women’s basketball didn’t get to experience a deep run in the NJCAA Tournament. The team’s freshmen, though, got a learning experience and a longing to reach that stage again next year.
The Lady Raiders had the third-youngest team in the tournament with 70 percent of its roster consisting of freshmen. With so much of its production on the court returning for another season, Three Rivers is poised to have another shot at making a trip to the national tournament.
Mineral Area, its toughest competition in Region XVI this year, loses an All-American in Holly Forbes, so the Cardinals are an unknown. The rest of the region finished the year with records at .500 or below. This leaves Three Rivers as the likely favorite entering next season.
Another benefit the Lady Raiders are getting from their trip to Texas is a chance to watch the other best teams in the country battle. It shows them the aggression, poise and doggedness it takes to make a deep run.
“They get to see what it takes to play here,” Three Rivers coach Jeff Walk said. “The physicality of the game, how much more athletic we’ve gotta get, how much better our ball skills have gotta get and just knowing how to play at this level.”
Three Rivers is getting a firsthand look at that. Each day since their elimination, the Lady Raiders have traveled to Rip Griffin Center and watched several games that have top seeds competing against one another, and they’ve already learned some of the subtleties they need to take their game to the next level and prepare for next year.
“In tough times, in hard games, in crunch time, we need to talk more and get hyped together,” freshman J’Kayla Fowler said.
Crunch time isn’t something the Lady Raiders had to deal with much this season. Seven of their 31 games were decided by single digits. In their national tournament games against Jones County, there were times when it didn’t seem like another game would get added to that tally. Three Rivers led by as much as seventeen in the first half, and Jones led by as much as 15 in the second half before hanging on to win by four points.
That outcome stressed the importance of putting together a full 40 minutes of work.
“Once we had that lead, I felt like we got a little more comfortable than we should have,” freshman Katelyn South said. “We let them jump out — especially in the third quarter — we let them get a big lead. I feel like that helped us learn to not get comfortable even when we have a big lead because anything can happen.”
Next year’s team will know that can’t happen again. The maturity and experience will be there along with the taste of what it’s like to compete at the biggest stage.
“We’re also going to be older and more experienced,” freshman Hannah Thurmon said. “We had more freshmen this year, so just getting this year under our belts, it’s just even going to be better next year having us all back and having a few newcomers.”
Still, it’ll be hard to replace the talent they’ll lose. Having to replace Hailee Erickson, Kim Shaw and Casey Douglas leaves behind nearly 26 points per game, and Erickson was the team’s leading scorer at 14 points per game. That goes without mentioning the leadership of the three. They taught this year’s freshmen a lot about motivation and preparation.
“They taught us to keep pushing, even when we’re down, to keep pushing. Every time we’re in practice, they get on our head about shooting more free throws and just being a better person and staying focused,” freshman An’Nyah Pettus said.
The goal for the returning players is to take everything they’ve learned from the sophomores and teach it to next year’s newcomers. If they’re able to do so, it’ll get the new recruits in a position to quickly catch on and help the team reach the national tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history.
“We’ll teach them to stay focused, don’t give up,” redshirt freshman Deanay Watson said.
Added Pettus, “Since we’ll be sophomores next year, we’ll be a leader for them and teach them the way that we were taught.”
Despite players leaving and new players arriving, the motivation to reach the national tournament will stay the same for Three Rivers.
“The motivation wouldn’t stop,” Watson said. “I feel like since we have new faces, the motivation is going to be as it was this year. Everyone’s going to want it just as bad.”
Added freshman Jordan Little, “As sophomores, we’ll know it’s our last year, and we’re going to put everything we have into it to get back here.”
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic