The Clinton Lady Dark Horses have been busy all week preparing for their State Championship matchup with the North Surry Lady Greyhounds on Saturday. This week of game preparations has been much different than most weeks this season for the Lady Horses. With the championship tilt being the only game left this season in the 2A ranks, all the attention from media across the region and state has been focused on Clinton.
“We have gotten lots of requests for interviews from all over the state and all the students here at school are very excited about the game,” said Clinton head coach Chris Owens on Tuesday after practice. “I told the girls I want them to enjoy this week, but we are trying to keep them focused by keeping a regular practice schedule. This time of year it is more about being mentally prepared than physical conditioning, so we try to do short practices to keep them mentally sharp but physically prepared and focused.”
Owens commented on what he thinks has been a big component of his team’s success, adding that team chemistry has been a “huge plus for us this year.”
“This is a good group of girls, they are really close knit, they have stuck together from day one,” the coach said. “The girls get after one another every now and then, but these girls have really stayed together both on and off the court. I see it in the hallways at school, I see it in practice every day in how they enjoy being around each other. I really appreciate what they have accomplished so far and how they have stuck together to get within reach of their goals.”
A lot of the credit for his year’s success has to go to Clinton’s all-everything player Mikayla Boykin. Boykin has averaged 37.8 points and over 13 rebounds per game this season for the Lady Dark Horses. She has broken the single-game school scoring record twice this season, eclipsing her own mark with 63 points in a game earlier this year, and her 1,028 points for the season leave her just eight points shy of breaking the single-season scoring record for the state of North Carolina.
Boykin’s importance to the team is not lost on Owens, but he was quick to note that the Lady Horses are not a one-woman show.
“A player like Mikayla comes along maybe once every 15 to 20 years if you are lucky and she could carry any team to a lot of wins. But we have been blessed with several other players that could be stars in their own rights on just about any other team. Alex Canady and Ashlyn Williams are averaging 18.6 and 11.8 points, respectively, and have kept other teams honest on defense all year long.”
Owens continued discussing how all the pieces have fallen into place this season, adding “we knew we had a really special team and spent this past summer identifying and working on everyone’s roles. The girls really bought in and I think that was a result of them being so close knit. Kiera Mabry, Tanaziah Chestnutt and Charica Joyner have all been in our system for awhile and have accepted their roles, and while their contributions have not been as obvious all the time, they have been every bit as important to our success as have all our players. I am just proud, proud, proud of all of our team.”
The Lady Dark Horses hold a 29-2 overall record, finishing Four County Conference play an unblemished 14-0. They are currently riding a 22-game win streak. When Clinton takes the court at Reynolds Coliseum on Saturday they will be facing a very capable foe.
The Lady Greyhounds come out of the Western Piedmont Athletic Association and sport a 26-5 record overall, going 10-0 in conference play.
“They are a great team, or they wouldn’t be there on Saturday,” Owens said of the Lady Greyhounds. “They have two good bigs, Mikaela Johnson and Elle Sutphin, who are averaging 12 and 13 points. They handle the ball well, are good shot blockers and rebound real well, which is what you want in your bigs.”
The North Surry post players will present a challenge for Clinton, but that is not all they have, according to Owens.
“Their guards are quick, athletic and they play hard,” he said. “They play really good defense and have limited teams to 32 points per game on average. If we have an advantage it is probably in the backcourt.”
Owens revealed a little of his game plan when he added, “I don’t think you will see us change a lot of what we do. We like to get out and run, push the tempo and apply pressure on defense. We have played some good bigs this year in the OT Tournament and then the girl from Bartlett Yancey this past weekend was a very good post player, so we have some good experience against some big teams this year. I am confident that if we execute our plan we have what it will take to get the win.”
As Clinton’s practice drew to a close on Tuesday several players milled around the gym talking about the upcoming championship game.
“I have dreamed about playing for a state championship my whole high school career,” said Mabry, a senior. “It is an honor to play for the title.”
Defensive stopper Tanaziah Chestnutt added, “being a senior it means a lot to me to be able to play in the state championship.”
Chestnutt normally draws the toughest assignment on the defensive end of the court and she gave a glimpse of what it takes to be successful in that role.
“I bring a lot of aggression. I try to think of something that triggers anger and then I draw on that to get me going,” she said.
Williams commented on her late-season surge, saying ,“I knew other teams would pay more attention to Mikayla and Alex as we got into the playoffs so I tried to step up and make more plays to help the team.”
Boykin echoed her coach’s sentiments about team chemistry.
“We had to develop our chemistry through the season,” the senior standout said. “As the season progressed we started trusting each other more, getting each other involved and everyone started making big plays and it just grew from there.”
Boykin capped off the post-practice conversation with a championship game preview.
“We know North Surry is a good team,” she said. “We will bring our ‘A’ game and run them. Our coaches will have us ready, coach Owens is the best coach ever and if we execute our game plan we will be tough to beat.”
If the talented Lady Dark Horses execute their plan and get out in transition and create turnovers on defense, the Lady Greyhounds may have a hard time keeping up. Based on statistics, the two teams offer contrasting styles of play, with the Lady Greyhounds relying on a power game that pounds the ball inside to their post players in a slower-paced half court style of play. The Lady Dark Horses will look to get out and run, creating easy baskets off turnovers and running up lots of points early to force North Surry to play at a faster pace than they like.
Saturday’s championship game is set for a 5 p.m. tipoff at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum. Pre-sale tickets will be available at Clinton High School and Matthews Drug Store through Friday afternoon at 2 p.m. for $9 each. Tickets can be purchased at Reynolds Coliseum box office on game day for $10 each.
Owens hopes to see a lot of black and gold in Reynolds’ trademark red seats on Saturday.
“The Clinton community has supported us all year long and we hope to have a large crowd to cheer us on Saturday as we try to bring another championship back to the Clinton community,” he said.
Reach Sports Editor Daron Barefoot at [email protected]