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Final run falls short for Richland, season ends with state quarterfinal defeat

By Maurice Patton

MURFREESBORO – Richland’s 11-game winning streak could have afforded to be just a bit longer.

The Raiders’ streak, and season, came to an end Wednesday as North Greene dealt them a 56-55 decision in the quarterfinals of the TSSAA Class A state tournament at Middle Tennessee State University’s Murphy Center.

“It was a great experience. I hate that it didn’t end like we wanted,” said Daniel Nicholson, one of Richland’s five seniors, after the loss that brought their 26-2 campaign to a close.

Nicholson finished with 16 points, one of three double-digit scorers for the Raiders, but picked up his final three fouls in an 18-second span inside the game’s final minute as Richland tried to recover from a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit.

After scoring seven unanswered points and cutting the margin to 54-52, Nicholson was whistled for a foul on a would-be steal near midcourt. On the ensuing possession, he was called for a charge in the paint. As the Huskies inbounded the ball, he fouled in an attempt for another steal, with Cayden Foulks converting both ends of a one-and-one at the 18.1-second mark and making it a 56-52 game.

A Jase Derryberry 3-pointer with three seconds remaining pulled Richland within one, but North Greene did not inbound the ball as time expired.

“I thought Daniel in both instances was doing what Daniel does – making plays,” veteran Raiders coach Jason Loveless said. “He went straight up, and he got a steal. The officials thought differently.

“If we’d gotten more defensive rebounds, maybe it wouldn’t have come down to that.”

Richland came up short on the boards (38-22), with North Greene capitalizing particularly on its own misses – outrebounding the Raiders by 10 and enjoying a six-point “second chance” advantage.

“We showed a little toughness,” Huskies coach Sam Tarlton said after the victory, which sends his team into a 10 a.m. semifinal Friday against the Madison Academic/Clay County quarterfinal winner. “We got good shots, but you’ve got to go in there and rebound them. Any time you can get easy shots, …

“We had to get stops and rebounds.”

Richland appeared to be the first team to settle into the tourney environment, leading by five at the end of the opening quarter and getting a pair of Nicholson free throws to open the second period for a 17-10 lead. A couple of Nicholson baskets midway through the quarter pushed the Raider cushion to 23-15, but North Greene answered with a 9-0 run and forced a 26-all tie at halftime.

Nicholson and Trey Luna combined for nine straight points to open the third period, but the Huskies responded again and put together their own fourth-quarter surge behind German exchange student Chriss Schultz, who finished with 19 points and 17 rebounds.

“I thought twice we were on the verge of breaking it open,” Loveless said. “They made plays.”

Eventually, North Greene put together one last run and Richland ran out of time.

“When the other team goes on runs, you have to weather the course, stay the course,” Tarlton said.

“We were pushing the ball like we always do, getting out in transition and getting easy baskets,” Nicholson said. “(At the end) some shots weren’t there.”

Logan Helton finished with 17 points to lead Richland and Trey Luna added 10. Foulks finished with 11 and Chance Campbell 10 for North Greene.

“We came to win the tournament,” Loveless said. “The fact we didn’t doesn’t leave a blemish on the legacy (of our seniors). We’re here because of them.”

North Greene boys 56, Richland 55

N 10 16 12 18 – 56
R 15 11 12 17 – 55

North Greene (56) – Carson Whaley 2, Cayden Foulks 11, Chance Campbell 10, Cody Freshour 6, Kendal Loftis 5, Chriss Schultz 19, Shane Cooter 3
Richland (55) – Tyrell Randolph 5, Jase Derryberry 3, Logan Helton 17, Daniel Nicholson 16, Trey Luna 10, Stevie Ballinger 4
3-pointers – North Greene 5 (Foulks, Campbell 2, Schultz, Cooter), Richland 5 (Randolph, Derryberry, Helton, Nicholson, Luna)

Photos by Chris Yow / SM-Tn Sports

Raider pride: Loveless leads alma mater to state tourney

By Maurice Patton

Jason Loveless took a moment to reflect after Richland defeated Loretto to earn a berth in this week’s TSSAA Class A boys basketball state tournament.

 “Leaving the gym after the substate game, I was the last one out,” he said. “I looked up at the rim. It was empty, no net. I looked down at the far end where it said ‘Dwight Clark Gymnasium’, and I felt a lot of pride – pride in Richland and the kids here and what they’ve done.”

Loveless didn’t just feel that pride as a coach, but also as an alumnus, and as a protégé of the gym’s namesake.

Clark won 867 games over a 20-year coaching career at Richland and at Campbellsville prior to that, leading his teams to 13 state tourney berths prior to his death in 1993 (Loveless’ senior year). He was inducted into the TSSAA Hall of Fame the following year.

“I played for a legendary coach. I played for Dwight Clark,” Loveless said as he and the Raiders prepared for Wednesday’s 10 a.m. state quarterfinal matchup with North Greene at Middle Tennessee State University’s Murphy Center.

After cutting down the nets following Richland’s Class A sectional win over Loretto on March 8, former Raider Jason Loveless hopes to replicate the process at this week’s state tournament. (Photo by Maurice Patton / SM-Tn Sports)

Having that grasp and appreciation for the significance of Richland basketball, it was inevitable that Loveless would one day return to lead the program he’d represented as a player. In 2006, he did.

“I was in Murfreesboro for eight years – at Riverdale for four and at Roy Waldron for four,” he said. “I knew eventually I wanted to get back to the roots, so to speak. I didn’t know when that would happen.

“I got to follow Richland a little bit. They’d had some down years, fallen off a little bit. Honestly, I was young and stupid. I thought I could change the world. Mr. (Wayne) Hobbs and Mrs. (Bobbi) McMasters were good enough to give me a chance to come back to my hometown and my home school, give me a chance to try to change the culture and the climate, and I’ve got great kids that have helped me do that.”

Also helping has been Stephen Gordon, a Richland assistant who – like Loveless – is also a graduate.

“We played together and battled together on the floor, we battle together coaching,” Loveless said. “He’s a guy that is not afraid to tell me what he thinks. We get into some heated exchanges over there, but it’s all in the good of our team and our love (of the program).

“It’s a lot of pride, a lot of tradition. It’s just embedded.”

Richland principal Micah Landers has seen the value of Loveless’ presence, in the school and at the helm of the basketball program.

“Jason would be successful wherever Jason is at,” Landers said. “He’s that kind of coach, that caliber of coach. So I feel like we’re fortunate that he came home, that he wanted to make ‘home’ where he grew up. He’s got an opportunity to pay stuff forward by impressing some stuff on these young men before they get to college and get out into the real world.

“The ‘tradition’ side of it, he got to experience. I came here after Coach Clark passed. I didn’t know the legacy of Coach Clark, but I know it now. He left it; it’s something that’s real. So Jason lived that, and I think he probably feels a certain amount of passion to continue that.”

Coaching in his hometown hasn’t been without its challenges – “It has its awkward moments; I’m coaching kids that their parents are people I went to school with,” Loveless said – but those are minimal by comparison.

“My kids that come here and want to play know that they’re going to get coached hard,” he said. “But they also know I’m going to love ‘em. The relationship I have with my players grows from freshman (year) to senior. The freshmen that come in here are scared to death, but by the time they’re juniors and seniors and we’ve shared sweat and ups and downs and blood – literally blood – all those things, it really grows into a friendship.

“I try to coach ‘em hard and I try to love ‘em hard. I tell my players all the time, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I wouldn’t trade a single guy in that locker room for anybody else in any other locker room. That’s not a knock on any other kids on any other teams. It’s just I’m invested in them and they’re invested in us. This is where I want to be.”

The result for the 44-year-old coach and his 15th Raider squad is the second state tourney appearance of his coaching tenure, following a semifinal berth in 2013, and the fifth in school history – including a 1990 quarterfinal loss to North Greene.

“It’s a business trip,” he said. “I’ve always felt some teams were just happy to get there. We’re fortunate. We feel blessed to be where we’re at, but we also know we’ve earned it.

“I just think you’ve got to treat it, to the best you can, as the next 32 minutes. It’s a big stage, but so far this year my guys have stepped up to every challenge. This is no different.”

From floor sweeper to starter, Ballinger no stranger to hard work

By Chris Yow

LYNNVILLE — As a freshman at Richland High School, Stevie Ballinger was the first one into the gym before games and practices, but he was there to sweep the floor with the dust mop.

The 300-plus-pound ninth-grade student just wasn’t cut out to suit up for the Raiders’ basketball team.

That setback wasn’t going to stop him from reaching his goal, though.

He tried out but never made the junior high basketball teams. A schedule mishap, as he calls it, landed him in the gym just before basketball practice, and that’s when coach Jason Loveless offered him a spot as a team manager.

That season, Ballinger would film more than 30 basketball games for Loveless’ team, showing up early and not leaving until well after everyone else — including Loveless.

“As a manager, after the team was long gone, he would be out there shooting,” Loveless said. “It made me feel bad that I wasn’t putting in enough work. He spent as much time in the gym as a manager as most players do.”

That hard work paid off, and as a sophomore he’d worked his way onto the team, though he was not expected to contribute on the floor. His work ethic had not gone unnoticed.

“I love basketball,” Ballinger said. “I just wanted to improve myself and find a way to help the team. I put in a lot of work even before I was the manager.”

Loveless could see the vision Ballinger had for himself, and respected the effort he put into realizing that vision. As a junior, he began to see some action on the floor, helping his team to a sectional berth and laying the groundwork for this season.

“He lost 70 pounds. He would just run and run to get his weight down to where it was a playable weight,” Loveless said. “Going into this season, we knew he could be our force in the middle.”

Getting on the floor wasn’t enough for the senior big man. He wanted to make sure he was in the best shape he could possibly get in to get his team over the edge. Nothing was going to stop him.

“Over the last year, I would go to Muletown Rec and run and play basketball. I would run three or four miles a day and eat right,” he said. “I had a week in the beginning of the season where I had to quarantine, but I still ran.”

Ballinger is part of another big senior class that includes the likes of Daniel Nicholson, Jackson Alsup and Logan Helton. Those players have certainly been leaders on this team, but none of them have had quite the journey Ballinger has traveled.

“It’s so rewarding to see a kid who was willing to film 30 basketball games just for a uniform and to be on the team,” Loveless said. “Knowing that was his vision and to see the effort he put in to get here is rewarding.

“It chokes me up because nothing has come easy for Stevie Ballinger, and he’s a good kid who is very deserving of this success.”

Stevie Ballinger, center, pictured as the Richland basketball manager his freshman season. (Photo courtesy Richland HS)

Ballinger is ready to help his team to its first state semifinal berth since 2013 on Wednesday morning at Middle Tennessee State’s Murphy Center, where the Raiders take on North Greene at 10 a.m.

“This is a special team. We have talent and chemistry with a lot of seniors who played together for years,” he said. “They have accepted me on this team, and they know the amount of work I’ve put in.”

Loveless added that Ballinger’s success typically leads to his team’s success, and he hopes Wednesday will be no different. No matter the outcome, however, Loveless will forever cherish having walked alongside Ballinger through the last four seasons.

“Some teams underestimate him, but he’s very important for us” Loveless said. “I’m so proud of him.”

Lady Mustangs get last laugh, down Summertown for title

By Maurice Patton

MURFREESBORO – If Saturday’s TSSAA Class A girls basketball state championship contest at Middle Tennessee State University’s Murphy Center could be encapsulated in one word, execution would probably fit.

When it mattered, Loretto ran its offense more effectively than Summertown, as the Lady Mustangs reversed a season-long trend with their 49-41 victory – delivering the program’s first title since 1958 and improving on a runner-up finish from the last tournament finals that were held, in 2019.

“As we watched tape, we knew we’ve not executed like we should have,” Loretto coach Ashley Rutledge said in reference to her team’s three previous losses to the Lady Eagles – two in District 12-A regular-season play and a 60-56 defeat in the Region 6-A finals. “They see plays that we normally don’t make.

“We knew if we played our game and executed, we were going to win.”

Led by Karly Weathers, who scored a game-high 18 points, the Lady Mustangs (21-7) broke open a contest in which neither team led by more than four points until the final five minutes. Kensey Weathers scored on a high-post jumper to make it a 38-33 game, with Karly converting both ends of a one-and-one and Madelinn Tidwell adding a pair of free throws.

“I think early in the game, I was forcing shots,” said Karly, named the tournament most valuable player and Miss Basketball. “At halftime, my teammates encouraged me, my mom (assistant coach Kelli Weathers) encouraged me. My outside shots weren’t falling, so I tried to pound it inside the paint.”

Down 42-33, Summertown was unable to rally.

“I think we did our job defensively,” Lady Eagles coach Catie Embrey said. “Offensively, we didn’t execute at the level we needed to.

“We’re a good offensive team. In the bracket we played, the tough teams we played, our bench was short, the legs get to you. We shot so terribly, in the worst possible week. We didn’t execute enough to win a ballgame.”

Summertown (29-4), which never seemed to find an offensive rhythm, shot 40 percent (16-40) from the floor and hit just 4 of 20 attempts from 3-point range. Things went from bad to worse when junior post Katie Burdette picked up her fifth foul with 5:51 remaining and her team trailing 34-33.

“It was terrible. I’ve never been in that position before,” said Burdette, whose 12 points led the Lady Eagles. “All you can do is cheer and hand waters out.”

The team’s primary rim protector, Burdette’s loss was felt more on the offensive end, according to Embrey.

“Her presence rebounding, her presence on the backside when we’re driving, when we can feed her – I think they worry about her,” the coach said.

“That was huge,” Rutledge agreed. You’ve got to give her props. She’s a great player, hard to guard.”

Without the threat Burdette presents in the paint, an already struggling Lady Eagle offense had few answers down the stretch.

And Loretto capitalized, connecting on 11 of 12 free throws the rest of the way.

While the Lady Mustangs snapped a 63-year drought with the win, Summertown, a finalist in 2018, is still in search of its first state title in girls basketball – despite going 3-1 against this year’s champion.

“It’s very frustrating because you have beaten somebody three times,” Embrey said. “But it doesn’t matter what you’ve done before. It’s what you do here.”

After falling short in the 2019 finals and losing an opportunity to advance past the quarterfinals last year as a result of the global pandemic, finishing this season with a gold ball was important to Rutledge and her team.

“Give props to them,” Rutledge said. “They’re a great team. To beat a team of that caliber is very satisfying.”

“It means so much for so many different reasons. We had one or two players in the stands from that ’58 team. Our seniors from last year were up in the stands sobbing. To do this for our school and our community means a lot.”

Loretto girls 49, Summertown 41

S 7 11 11 12 — 41
L 7 13 11 18 — 49

Summertown (41) – Jenna Brazier 3, Kaley Campbell 9, Hailey Jones 10, Katie Burdette 12, Rylee Long 3, Karlie Campbell 4
Loretto (49) – Julie Clifton 3, Madelinn Tidwell 9, Autumn Buttrum 9, Karly Weathers 18, Kensey Weathers 8, Shelby Fisher 2
3-pointers – Summertown 4 (Brazier, Campbell, Jones, Long), Loretto 2 (Tidwell, Buttrum)
All-tournament – Katie Arms, Clay Co.; Brooklyn Anderson, North Greene; Rylee Long, Katie Burdette, Kaley Campbell, Hailey Jones, Summertown; Autumn Buttrum, Kensey Weathers, Madelinn Tidwell, Karly Weathers (MVP), Loretto

Photos by Chris Yow / SM-TN Sports

Tough defeat provides life lesson for Lady Eagle seniors

By J.P. Plant

MURFREESBORO — “The agony of defeat” can often be overused, but it can also teach life lessons.

The passion produced in the heat of athletic competition creates a two-way flow of emotions, and it did so for Summertown as a girls basketball season with so much promise came to a screeching halt Saturday with a 49-41 loss to county and district rival Loretto in Class A state tournament championship game at Murphy Center on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University.

It marks a second state runner-up finish in four seasons, after the 2018 team fell to Greenfield in the finals — when this year’s seniors were freshmen.

“This team has fought so many different circumstances over the past couple of years,” third-year coach Catie Embrey said. “As freshmen this senior group came in and lost in the state title game. To battle and get back this season is something this group will always take with them.”

A battered and bruised Lady Eagle contingent won 29 games — three over Saturday’s opponent. Despite their ultimate inability to close the deal, the experience is one that will resonate with the group.

“It was special coming back with them,” said Kaley Campbell, one of the team’s four seniors, who had her junior campaign cut short by a knee injury. “I just feel blessed to be here.”

Campbell and classmate Jenna Brazier not only gained experience with the 2018 title game run, but as eighth-graders when they contributed on a Summertown team that advanced to the state semifinals. The pair, along with Hailey Jones and Rylee Long, comprise one of the most successful classes in Lady Eagle hoops history.

That experience has been a key through a tough season, as Campbell’s injury, others suffered by teammates and the ongoing global pandemic fostered a closeness between the seniors, and the rest of the team.

“We just lean on each other and keep pushing through,” said Jones. “That’s what we’ve relied on all year.”

Though just a junior, post Katie Burdette has been a vital member of the Summertown starting lineup as well — making her departure, following her fifth foul with just under six minutes Saturday, a crucial development.

Loretto outscored the Lady Eagles 15-8 the rest of the way.

“Losing ‘Burd’ was a huge piece, defensively and offensively,” Embrey said.

Given her production and the roster makeup going forward, Burdette will certainly be leaned on next season.

“They leave some big shoes to fill — leadership-wise, just their motor at practice wanting to compete and be the best at every drill, maintaining that culture and continuing it,” Embrey said.

There is no doubt the legacy left by these four seniors will be felt for years to come. But as for the four themselves, Embrey sees the experience from Saturday’s loss as a special character builder that is unique to playing high school sports.

“Just the fight and the grit that these kids have, there is so much they’ve learned that they can take with them moving forward in life,” she said. “That’s why we play sports because it teaches you so much even though it hurts — it just teaches you so much.”