By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
RICHLANDS, Va. —
In the press conference following Richlands’ eight-point loss to Liberty-Bealeton in the Class AA, Division 3 state semifinals last March, Cassidy Richardson told all “we will be back next year.”
That goal hasn’t changed.
“It was a great feeling,” said Richardson, prior to this season. “If we work hard we will be back this year.”
Dennis Palmer, now in his second season as Richlands’ head coach, liked that comment back then, and understands the expectations are high for the Lady Blues, who made their furthest progression as a program since 1986.
“It is naturally going to be high,” Palmer said. “Me personally, I like that pressure. Coaching football you have that same type of pressure and I think we will respond better to that type of pressure.
“It has been good practicing under that kind of pressure for me in particular. I kind of feed off of that a little bit.”
The Lady Blues seem to be doing the same, having posted a 7-0 record on the young season, a sharp contrast to last year when Richlands started 2-3, one year after falling the state quarterfinals.
Richlands turned it around, winning seven of its last eight games — including a second straight Region IV title — to finish at 18-10. The Blue Tornado defeated Rustburg in the state quarterfinals before a cold-shooting performance resulted in a 42-34 loss to Liberty-Bealeton.
“I don’t think we realized how good that we were,” said Richlands senior Rachel Alley, of last year’s slow start. “This year we lost a starter (Jordyn Cole), but we gained some great people and we have got more confidence.
“I think we are going to have a better start this year realizing what we have and what we can do.”
So far so good. Seniors Richardson, Alley and MaKenley Davis have combined with junior Brittany Allen to lead the Lady Blues to wins by 40, 19, 29, 17, 21, 29 and 6 points.
Not bad for a program that went an entire season without a win not all that long ago.
“It is a good thing that we have come this far,” Davis said, “but we are really working hard for it.”
Now they’re talking about challenging for not only a state championship, but the Southwest District title, something that has been controlled by Carroll County for years.
“We want to start off with the district and go from there,” said Davis, whose Blues open the SWD campaign against Marion on Jan. 4. “We just have to come out and play as hard as we can as a team.”
Palmer knows how difficult the task will be to unseat the Cavaliers at the top of the SWD. Richlands did just that last year in another sport when Alley and Cole led the Lady Blues to the district title in volleyball.
“I don’t remember the last time anybody won the district other than Carroll,” Palmer said. “Regardless of how many girls they lose, they have a great program and they just put girls in there and they just keep winning and winning and that is a sign of a good successful program.
“They have got to be number one.”
Don’t count out the Lady Blues.
“That is our first goal,” Richardson said.
While Richlands can play four guards, all of whom can handle the ball, the offense flows through the 5-foot-6 Richardson, a talented point guard, who can dish or shoot, depending on what the Lady Blues need.
However, Palmer likes the versatility and basketball IQ of his team, and often lets his players make the decisions on the court.
“I don’t do a lot of set plays, I like to run a regular motion offense and let them read and react to what the defense is doing and they can play off of each other pretty well,” Palmer said. “When they have played as many basketball games as they have, their basketball IQ is very, very high.”
The loss of Cole off last year’s team was a hit on the inside for Richlands, but the 6-foot-1 Alley — who recently committed to play volleyball at Bluefield College — plans to do more to help the Blues.
“Losing Jordyn, I will definitely have to pick up some of her points,” Alley said. “Mostly I was just focusing on rebounding last year, but this year I will have to have start scoring more to get back some of those points.”
“We just have to work as a team and keep practicing hard,” added Richardson, who is one of the better soccer players in the region. “Jordyn was awesome, but we have people coming up so we should be all right.”
That includes the continued improved play from Davis, who, along with Cole, picked up her performance as last season progressed.
“I tried to step my game up, I practiced really hard on my shot and hopefully it will be back this year,” Davis said. “I felt like I got better, but I really have to practice this year and get back to that point.”
The 5-9 Davis will be moving inside to help out this season, which is fine with her. Other guards expected to contribute for Richlands are Montana Hearl and lone freshman Nadia Ashig.
“This year I am playing the 4 position so I will be doing a little bit of both,” Davis said. “I like it, I just have to get more aggressive.”
“MaKenley really came on last year,” Palmer said. “Especially late in the year she played well and had some big games for us.”
Rebounding was key to Richlands’ success last season, and this year will be no different, led by Alley, along with 5-10 Sarah Compton. 5-11 Paxton Casey and 5-9 Hannah Alley.
“Rebounding is a big key, we are going to try and start doing that earlier this year,” Alley said. “We lost some games at the beginning of last year that we shouldn’t have lost, and we have to take those out of the picture this year and hopefully that will help us down the stretch too.”
Alley, who helped Richlands to a tournament championship in Bristol earlier this month, already knows about life in the middle.
“It is pretty aggressive, I come home with bruises all the time, but that is what they expect out of you,” Alley said. “That is where you are there for, but I enjoy it.
“I help set screens and I don’t mind helping other people get open because we have got a lot of great shooters on the team. I do what I can to help get some open shots.”
Most of the Lady Blues have been playing basketball for Palmer for years, and it shows on the court.
“If you take Cassidy and Brittany and Rachel, those girls have played with me in travel ball since the fifth grade so they have got a lot of experience, not just school experience, but travel ball and AAU ball,” Palmer said.
Football has long been king in Richlands, but the Lady Blues have helped bring a different sport to the forefront and they know what has to happen to keep it going.
“Keep winning,” said Richardson, with a smile.
Those three seniors have been a part of major turnaround at Richlands, and they want to keep it going in their final season as Lady Blues.
“I want to make the most of it,” Richardson said.
“I want to make the most of it and get as far as we can,” added Davis.
Alley feels much the same.
“We just have to focus,” Alley said. “I know we have the talent. Every game is a game we have to win. We have to start out with that district win and go on to regionals and just keep fighting hard every day.”
—Contact Brian Woodson