By MIKE HUTCHENS
Messenger Sports Editor
Been there, done that.
Whatever physical hardships Union City is enduring prior to Thursday morning’s matchup with Cloudland in the Class A girls’ state tournament, the Lady Highlanders will have sympathy.
Cloudland has lost three players to ACL knee injuries this season, yet still made it back to Murfreesboro for the second year in a row and fifth time in program history.
“One went down in the preseason, then two more did the same thing in the early part of the year,” head coach Matt Birchfield told the Messenger earlier in the week while detailing his team’s injury struggles. “It was just a freak thing.
“Two of them were starters and all three were going to play a lot. We had to move some kids around and to put some out there before they were probably ready, but they’ve come on and really gotten better as the season’s wore on.”
Cloudland (24-11) got off to a rough start — going 2-7 — before righting its ship and winning 18 of its last 20 games behind the play of Miss Basketball finalist Brooke Rhodes.
The Lady Highlanders, ranked ninth in the final Associate Press poll, knocked off fellow ranked teams Cosby and Hampton in the regional tournament before beating Oliver Springs 51-43 in the sectional round.
The 6-2 Rhodes had 26 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots in that sectional triumph after averaging 16 points and 10.6 rebounds per-game until that point. She is headed to Presbyterian (S.C.) College.
Rhodes couldn’t escape the injury bug either as she suffered a sprained MCL in her knee and missed a handful of games.
“She’s healthy now, and thank goodness, because pretty much everything we do goes through her,” Birchfield said of his team’s only senior. “I guess we’ve seen about every gimmick and junk defense you can see where a post player is concerned. We try and simulate some stuff we’ll see in games while we’re in practice, but sometimes, you just can’t do that.”
Birchfield was complimentary, too, of junior forward Courtney Wilson, who averages 9 points pergame — saying, “She’s really come on and stepped up and played well in big games.”
The coach — a Cloudland alumnus who’s been on the job since 2000 — is confident his team belongs among the elite field of eight Class 1A teams remaining in the state.
“We’ve been through some tough times and persevered. We’ve gotten stable and have really focused well of late,” he said.
“I think having been here last year is invaluable, and I truly think we’ll be much more comfortable this time around.”
Cloudland has never won a state tournament game in its previous four appearances.
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by email at email@example.com.
Published in The Messenger 3.6.13