Grainger girls ranked No. 1 in state poll
Grainger’s Allison Hodge (24) goes up for a shot against Pigeon Forge in a game earlier this season in Rutledge. Hodge is averaging 16.5 points and 10 rebounds per game and leads the Lady Grizzlies who are now ranked No. 1 in the state in the Associated Press Class AA girl’s basketball poll for the first time in program history.
RUTLEDGE — The road to a final destination is paved with different steps on how to get there. Many of those steps are difficult, achieved after a great deal of hard work, sacrifice and dedication. But once you get to where you are going, those steps are all the sweeter.
As the Grainger Lady Grizzlies started the season, they knew the final destination to which they are striving is Murfreesboro in early March. To play in the TSSAA tournament is the dream of all teams in Tennessee and the Lady Grizzlies are no exception. It’s always an up-hill fight.
The way the season ended last year – a controversial loss to Chuckey-Doak in the regional final and a heart-breaking setback at Loudon in the substate – seems to have narrowed the Lady Grizzlies focus to a point where they are leaving no doubt as to where they are going. In fact, in all but a few games, they have run over anyone and everyone in their way.
The numbers Grainger is putting up are simply astounding, and to their opponents, simply frightening. They have scored at least 60 points 14 times this season and 70 or more six times. They are averaging a margin of victory against their conference opponents of over 25 points per game and only once – a 65-56 win at Chuckey-Doak – has a conference foe come within single digits of the Lady Grizzles.
All that led to Grainger taking over the No. 1 ranking in the state in Class AA in the Associated Press poll for the first time in school history after a 27-point road win at Class AA power South Greene last Friday.
Grainger coach Justin Combs said his team is a tight-knit group and have responded to every challenge so far this season.
“They are a good group of kids that play well together and are very unselfish,” Combs said. “They don’t worry about who scores and sometimes they are too unselfish. They pass up shots just to get the ball to someone else to shoot. But that is a good problem to have.”
One of the things aiding the Lady Grizzlies in their march toward a possible berth in the state tournament is the fact they have few weaknesses. They can score. They can defend. They are versatile with a lethal inside-outside game. They are deep. All of those factors make Grainger a tough matchup for their opponents.
“It is beneficial to have weapons at every position,” Combs said of his team’s depth and talent. “I think our kids have done a good job of developing themselves into the players they need to be to fit the role they are required to play on this team. We have had some injuries but so far, someone has stepped up off our bench and responded.”
This is already a very special season, one that comes on the heels of the best season in school history last year. After winning over 30 games last season, Grainger is well on their way to an even better mark this year. Just how special is this season? The first indication came in the opening game of the year when they defeated Cosby – currently ranked third in the state in Class A – in a tight home game, 47-42.
Things have only gotten better from there.
Just how good this team has been, is and can be was evident at a tournament at White County in December. After beating Lebanon – a school with twice as many students as Grainger – in the opening round, the Lady Grizzlies knocked off another Class AAA opponent in McMinn County and then rallied to down Harpeth Hall, the sixth ranked team in Division II, in the championship game. McMinn County and Harpeth Hall sport a combined record of 23-8.
The tough competition Grainger faced in that tournament has prepared them for the second half of the season and got them noticed state wide. The Lady Grizzlies were ranked second in the state behind Cannon County in last week’s initial poll. Grainger actually had eight first place votes to Cannon County’s seven in that poll, and fell three points shy of being ranked No. 1 last week.
The Lady Grizzlies are 20-0 and have won 48 of their last 50 games. If Grainger continues to take care of business in district play and can pick up road victories at Pigeon Forge and Seymour – teams they have already beaten once – then they will carry a perfect record into the beginning of the postseason.
But Combs said he isn’t looking that far ahead.
“I tell the girls every day we have to take them one at a time,” Combs said. “We have to stay focused on the game at hand and keep our eyes on what matters in the next game that looms ahead. The thing you have to be careful of is you start looking too far ahead or looking too far back and reflecting on what you have done in the past and pat yourself on the back.”
With nearly four weeks of the regular season remaining before the tournament begins, Combs said his team remains focused.
“They have done a good job up to this point of keeping the team goals and concepts in mind,” Combs said. “You have to guard against patting yourself on the back right now because there is still work to be done. Once you get to the tournament at the end of the year, you throw your record out the window.
“All of our goals are still ahead of us. Everything we want to play for and all the big prizes that every team starts the year in search of are still out there. We have to keep our eye on that, stay focused, not put much stock in these 20 wins and realize the remaining games we have are the ones that are most important. Every night we play from now on we want to take a step in the direction of playing our best basketball in February and March.”
February and March could be a very special couple of months for the Lady Grizzlies even though there are still challenges that lie ahead. But the journey they are on – one that had its foundation formed with the disappointment of the way the season ended last year and one forged in the fire of high expectations, getting their opponents best game each night and the personal challenges they have placed on themselves to attain greatness – is still an exciting one.
The final destination lies ahead. For the Lady Grizzlies, it’s full speed ahead.
-By Marlin Curnutt, Tribune Correspondent