Tonight, the Ripley Lady Tigers have to beat the Belmont Lady Cardinals. Yes, they have to. Even though the season is less than 10 games old and division tournaments don’t start for another month and a half, when the rematch from the March 5, 2010 Class 3A Girls’ State Championship tips off tonight at the RHS Event Center at 6 p.m., it will be a must-win situation for the Ripley Lady Tigers. You could call tonight’s clash between current 3A titans the “Exorcising the Demons” game. If the Lady Tigers plan to achieve team goals such as winning the first division title under Head Coach Katie Bates and the school’s second state title in school history, they must send a clear message to the Lady Cardinals: Last year was simply that—last year. Looking back on last season, the Ripley Lady Tigers finished 27-10. Half of their losses came at the hands of the Lady Cardinals--Two division games during the regular season, the Div. 1-3A Championship Game, the North-Half Championship Game, and most recently the aforementioned State Title Game. Coming forward to tonight’s fall 2010 reunion--with a few changes to their respective lineups--both teams are built to make a return trip to Jackson. It would be a safe bet to say that tonight’s matchup could be the beginning of a five-game series similar to last season. The Lady Cardinals lost Daily Journal Player-of-Year Anna Brooke Page (20.9 ppg/6.5 rebs) and guard Zoe Hammock (13.1 ppg). Accounting for those losses are returnees Morgan Pearson, Leslie Robinson and Angelina Allen. All three averaged around eight points per game last year, but have upped those averages to double-digits this season. Pearson and Allen combined for 10 rebounds per game last season, while Robinson led in assists with 4.2 per game. The Lady Tigers lost senior leaders LaNaesha Cox (11.3 ppg) and Anna Hamilton (2.3 ppg/2.2 rebs), but return current statistical leaders Rebecca Ruckes and Jayla Chills. They combine for just under 28 points and 14 rebounds per game. The Lady Tigers also return seasoned starters India Howard (8.0 ppg), Shunquest Howell (7.3 ppg/4.2 apg) and Anna Johnson (2.7 rebs). The Lady Cardinals (5-0) have won 25 consecutive regular season games and 38 of their last 40 overall. The Lady Tigers (6-1) are 15-5 over their last 20 ballgames. Belmont and Ripley are basic mirror images of each other. The only difference is one team is a state champion and the other aspires to be one. It’s no secret that the Lady Tigers left unfinished business in March. With one quarter remaining in a game they dominated from the opening tip, they led by eight points. But as fate would have it, the Big Mo shifted in favor of the Lady Cardinals and the rest as they say is history. So, tonight is not about getting revenge. They can’t get revenge from their loss in March. If Belmont loses tonight, Lady Cardinal Coach Chris Higgenbottom isn’t going to give their gold ball to Ripley. However, if the Lady Tigers want to prove they are the team to beat this season and they’re serious about staking their claim as the best 3A team in North Mississippi and hopefully the state by March, they must exorcise the demons from last season. They must beat Belmont tonight. They can’t win or lose a Gold Ball tonight, but they can certainly take a big step toward playing for one again.
Kedrick Storey/Southern Sentinel