SPRINGFIELD – It’s a little bit hard for Springfield’s Johneisha Joseph to believe, but it’s true.
As things stand right now, the Lady Bulldogs are sitting at No. 14 in the unofficial Class 2A power rankings by Louisiana Sportsline, and if that holds up, they’ll host a home playoff game later this month.
“It’s really unreal thinking about it, because I remember coming in and playing basketball and being upset a lot because we didn’t really win much, but it’s like now, even game day, we don’t even think we can win (sometimes), we still come in and give it our all …,” Joseph, a junior, said. “Yeah, it’s great. We’ve just got to keep pushing and keep on going as hard as we can. We’re not going to let up on (any) team that we think we can’t beat. We’re just going to give it our all no matter who you are.”
Getting to this point has been an uphill climb for Springfield, which heads into Friday’s 6 p.m. game at Class 2A No. 1 Doyle at 17-11 overall and 2-5 in league play. Lady Bulldogs coach Billy Dreher took over a program that had four wins the season before his arrival and finished with 13 victories last season.
“I was lucky when I took over, there were some younger girls that seemed to buy in,” Dreher said.
“We had some good athletes, and we just had to try to play to our strengths, and that is trying to get up and down the court and try to cause some havoc and use lots of bodies when we’re playing that way,” Dreher continued. “Unfortunately, we had some key injuries that set us back last year, or we probably would have won a few more games.”
Dreher pointed to Springfield's conditioning program with being one of the early steps in getting the program headed in a different direction.
“The girls are in much better shape,” he said. “They’re much stronger than they were a year-and-a-half ago, and they’ve continued to try to work harder, and then their confidence has grown. Any time a program is losing a lot, sometimes they don’t know what it takes to win and that feeling of winning, and it’s not easy. If it was easy, everybody would be winning. It takes hard work and extra things. They’ve put some time with that in AAU, and I’ve got a great assistant coach with Coach Kim (White). I couldn’t be more pleased where they’re at right now.”
It’s taken a team effort to get to this point, and Springfield has its share of team players team, starting with senior Blair Simon, who has played four years and was selected by her teammates as a team captain. She’s accepted her role as the team’s defensive specialist.
“(I’m) definitely a defensive player, but I hope that I bring a positive attitude, too and help keep everyone in good spirits," Simon said. "I definitely take it with a lot of pride and respect, the fact that my teammates think that highly of me, because there’s definitely better players on the court than me, and I’m honored that they would pick me to represent them,” Simon said of being team captain.
Simon credited Dreher with helping the team grow on and off the court.
“Honestly, I didn’t really understand basketball until he got here,” Simon said of Dreher. “I think he helps us understand the game. We’ve learned different plays and defenses and grown as players, but I think a big part of that is we grew together as a team. We weren’t that close before, but now we understand each other as players and care about making sure that we’re there for the other ones (players).”
At times this season, Springfield has had double-digit individual scorers in a game, and he said Simon is a prime example of the type of player he’s looking for, even though she might not fill up the stat sheet with points every game. The Lady Bulldogs, led by Destiny Reed's 9.6, have also gotten to this point without having a player averaging double-digit scoring.
“I try to stress a lot to the girls, it’s not always necessarily the best basketball talent that gets on the court, it’s 'give us the best effort, give us the maximum effort, know what we’re trying to do, and the concepts, and there’s playing time for you …'” Dreher said.
Dreher said playing so many players in some games also stems from not having Katie Norman, who will be back next season while recovering from a knee injury. The team also lost senior Lori Martin, one of the team’s better shooters last season, to a knee injury.
“That’s why we’re big on trying to use people, play a lot of people whenever the opportunity presents itself and try to reward them and try to get them excited maybe about being a part of a team, or maybe that gets them to go practice more,” Dreher said.
Freshman Maddie Ridgedell, who’s averaging 4.6 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game, said getting those bench players in has also helped with team bonding.
“Our biggest concern in every game is probably defense,” Ridgedell said. “We want to make sure we shut down (the opponent), and then try and find as many ways as we can score. When we play teams that we have such a big advantage against, we want our (bench players) to come in and score, just so they can feel as much as we do. It’s so much fun, just seeing us as a bench, everyone else hitting threes that never come in. It’s just so much fun standing up, screaming, hollering. The gym would be so quiet, and we’d still just cheer everybody on.”
Joseph may be the opposite of Simon, leading the team in rebounds (11.5) while averaging 8.0 points per game, but she realizes her role is also important to the team.
“I feel like rebounding is a big part in basketball,” Joseph said. “… we’re not really a shooting team, but every shot matters because when it goes up, it might go in, or if it doesn’t, we can always try to get the rebound and put it back up, pass the ball so somebody else can put it back up …”
While Springfield has put up wins this season, a goal for Dreher is to become more competitive in District 10-2A, which features the No. 1 and No. 4 teams in the unofficial Class 2A power rankings – Doyle and French Settlement – and the No. 1 team in the Division III power rankings – St. Thomas Aquinas.
“We still are a very young team, but so are some of those teams, so that doesn’t help you out on that fact,” Dreher said of a team that’s shooting 27 percent and averaging 43.9 points per game. “I preach over and over to these girls that they’ve got to spend some time working on their craft and getting consistent shooting the basketball. For us to beat some of those teams, we’ve got to be able to make shots. You’ve got to be able to make free throws. It doesn’t have to be an amazing percentage, but it’s got to be better than where we’re at.
“Most of these elite teams, they walk in, and you know there’s a couple of girls that are going to get double figures every night, even when you play good defense on them and focus on them," Dreher continued. "We have to be able to get some girls that can do that for us night in and night out, even if it’s two or three girls just getting 10 points every night, that would be a big plus. We’ve got to find more ways for people to work on their shooting, develop that, and become better basketball players."
For Dreher, it’s all about finding consistency, and that’s where he said playing in District 10-2A is also a double-edged sword of sorts.
“If you want to play at the higher level, that’s where you’ve got to be able to produce is against the elite teams, and in this area, there are so many of them,” he said. “You don’t have to go far to find competition.
“That’s where we would like to be,” he continued. “…I want to be able to at least be able to compete with those teams. It’s not always just about winning and losing, but did they know you were there? Did you at least make them a little bit worried? Did they have to play their starters the whole game? Sometimes a victory can be just losing by 10 points where we’re at right now still. It’s just small victories finding ways with some of these teams we know we’re not ready to beat this year – probably won’t be ready to beat a few of them next year, but can we get closer and closer to closing the gap on the difference in the score?”
Simon said that mental approach to the game has been part of the team’s turnaround over the past two seasons.
“I think (it’s) believing that we could (compete),” Simon said. “Before this, we didn’t have that much confidence in ourselves, but after last season, winning more games than we had before, and this season … we actually kind of believe in ourselves and know what we’re capable of.”
Maybe the best evidence of that for the Lady Bulldogs came in a 22-13 loss to French Settlement last month.
“I take it as a win,” Simon said. “Even though we didn’t end up scoring more points, that is the best I’ve seen us against a district team in four years that I’ve been on the team. I think that’s the best game I’ve ever played with these girls.”
For Springfield, it’s all about playing in the moment at this point in the season. They’ve set three goals as a team – having a winning season, hosting a home playoff game and winning a first-round playoff game.
“I felt like just having some goals set down, it’s giving us something to push for, and we know what we want to achieve on this team,” Joseph said.
Those goals have become more magnified as the regular season is winding down.
“These are some of our last years,” Joseph said. “The other night I was talking to Blair … and I was like, ‘Blair, you’re always pushing. You’re always giving it your all. You’re always fighting for every ball’, and she was like, ‘This is one of my last weeks playing basketball. After this year, I’m done totally, so I just push it as much as I can right now.’
“That made me (realize), ‘Hey, … you’re a year away. You’re almost done.’”
Dreher said he’s hopeful Springfield can enjoy the experience of a home playoff game.
“We’re right where we need to be,” Dreher said. “We let a couple slip away but definitely pleased where we’re at. Nothing would be sweeter than to get a home playoff game and win one for these girls to have that feeling. It’s a different atmosphere when you get into the playoffs.”
No matter what happens, Joseph is confident she and her teammates have laid a foundation for the future of the program.
“Usually people don’t want to join the team because we haven’t really been good lately, but we’re making a mark now … I feel like we have the potential,” Joseph said. “We’ve got it.”