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RHS girls hoping to build off strong finish

According to head coach Corey Thomaston, Russellville’s late-season surge last year was primarily the product of a discovery process that was bound to take time. Before the Lady Golden Tigers could start finding wins, they had to first find an identity—and embrace it.

“The biggest key for us was figuring out who we are,” said Thomaston, whose second season at Russellville will tip off on Saturday, November 18 with a game against Hartselle. “Those kids were on their third coach in three years, and it takes time to develop and adjust to a new coaching style and a new style of play. It takes time to buy into the process we want to instill—especially when things don’t look right early on.”

Not much looked right for Russellville in the early going last season, but the Lady Golden Tigers eventually turned a corner and won three area games in the month of January—including a signature overtime win on the road against eventual area champion Lawrence County. The season ended with a loss to the Lady Red Devils in the first round of the Class 5A, Area 16 tournament, but progress was evident.

“It took time for our kids to believe that what we’re doing is effective—if we do what we’re doing better,” said Thomaston, who came to Russellville from Shoals Christian and also spent seven years coaching Division III women’s basketball in Texas. “We fought that a little bit last year with some of our personnel wanting to go outside the box of what we were trying to do. Once we got into January, we were starting to believe in the strengths we have and what we could do to make this work, and that really helped.”

Thomaston said the Lady Golden Tigers continued to build on that foundation with a strong offseason.

“That confidence we developed over the last month of the season carried us into the summer,” he said. “We had a really productive summer. We were able to play four different play dates and really work on ourselves a lot. We simplified things this summer, offensively and defensively. We limited ourselves with regard to what we’re looking at, just trying to hone in on some of the things within those two areas that we could improve upon. We got a pretty good idea of how those things fit into what we want to do.

“Obviously, once the season starts, we’ll have to expand the playbook because of scouting and things like that, but it was good just to spend some time working on us. We re-addressed the way we want to play, as far as the tempo we want to play with and the style of defense we want to play. I was really pleased with how things went.

“We finished above .500, which is a huge improvement over last year. We competed at a higher level this summer and did some things we were not able to do last season. We finished better in transition, we hit more shots, and we defended with a little more purpose. It was a good summer for us.”

The challenge for Russellville now will be sustaining that momentum amidst some tough early-season circumstances. A broken water heater flooded the RMS gymnasium last month, necessitating the installation of a brand new floor. In the meantime, the Lady Golden Tigers will be taking their show on the road for the foreseeable future.

“We moved every home game we could into January,” Thomaston said. “That’s just another challenge for our kids, not being able to play in front of their home crowd. We’re gonna be challenged on the road night in and night out, and I’m interested to see how our girls respond. We played as well on the road last year as we did at home. Now we’re a year older, which can only help.

“We don’t have seven kids who have never played a varsity game before. We’ve got a lot of kids with a lot of experience from last year, and hopefully that can propel us into this season.”

Chief among those returning players is sophomore guard Madison Murray, who earned first-team All-County honors from the Free Press last season after setting new career-highs with 9.3 points per game and 22 threes made. After scoring in double-figures just five times as an eighth-grader, Murray did so 12 times as a freshman, including a 22-point outing in the big overtime win in Moulton.

Thomaston expects Murray, who is at her best offensively when she’s attacking the basket in transition or off the dribble, to be an even more productive scorer in her third varsity season.

“Madison is transitioning to more of a scoring guard than a point guard,” Thomaston said, “just because our personnel dictates that. I think she’ll really flourish in that role. She’s starting to get a better understanding of how hard to push the accelerator, when to attack to score and when to attack to distribute. Her growth and maturity in that area will be critical for the production of our offense. She brings a lot to the table.”

Also returning in the backcourt are freshman guard Treyvia Pruitt and sophomore guards A.J. Taylor and Krista Sikes, all of whom played key roles as varsity rookies a year ago. Pruitt knocked down 21 threes and averaged 5.0 points per game as an eighth-grader, making her the team’s second-leading returning scorer. Taylor provided a spark with her defensive energy, and Sikes made 15 threes in a reserve role.

“Treyvia will run a lot of point for us this year,” Thomaston said. “She was the only player we had last year who played in every game. She really was able to get a lot of great experience as an eighth-grader. She’s filling out physically, and she’s been working hard in the weight room. We have high expectations for what she can and will do for this program.

“A.J. got a lot of playing time last year after we called her up from the jayvee. She plays with a high motor and a lot of energy, and she’s developing skills that will help us on offense. Krista played quite a bit last year, too, and she’s been working hard to develop more consistency from the perimeter. She’s a kid who can provide some scoring off the bench for us and bust up zones with her three-point shooting.”

Senior Madison Hargett, who did not play last season but has extensive varsity experience, is back in the fold this year and adds even more depth to the guard rotation.

“Madison plays with great energy and effort,” Thomaston said. “She’ll help us a lot handling the basketball at the one and setting the tone defensively by pressuring the ball. She’s got a high motor and a great spirit about her that will help us on both ends of the floor.”

Hargett is joined in the senior class by 5’9 forward Johnna Oliver, who sat out last season after transferring from Belgreen, and Xaria Holingsworth, who played on the jayvee last year as a junior.

“Johnna will primarily play as a small forward facing the basket for us,” Thomaston said. “She’s got some scoring instincts, and she’s learning to play at the pace we want to play at. She can bring a toughness on the court to what we’re trying to do. Xaria has a good work ethic. She’s one of those kids that can help from a maturity standpoint in the locker room.”

Sophomores Autumn Logan and Lexie Glass are both back in the post after playing significant roles as freshmen a year ago.

“Autumn has a lot better understanding of how to execute her role within our offense,” Thomaston said. “We’re not asking her to score as much in the half-court set, but rather to be there to clean things up with her ability to get to the offensive glass and help set the tone for our style of play. She can also help us from a defensive standpoint.

“Lexie played a lot of minutes last year and has really turned a corner from the standpoint of how hard she works. She’s been giving us great effort the last couple of weeks since volleyball ended. She’s still learning the nuances of the game, as far as how she can fit in offensively, but her effort has been great and she’s extremely coachable. We have a lot of expectations for her as well.”

Thomaston said freshman guard Fallin Cox will see time with the varsity early in the season and perhaps longer, depending on when injured junior forward Jamie Hill is cleared to return to action.

Russellville will open the season with a trip to Hartselle High School for the Danville Thanksgiving Invitational. The Lady Golden Tigers will face Hartselle on November 18 and will continue tournament play on Tuesday and Wednesday, November 21 and 22. In between, Russellville is scheduled to play a regular season game against Colbert County on Monday, November 20.

Area play will begin in December, and Thomaston expects another highly competitive race.

“Off the top, I’d say Lawrence County has a little advantage based on the fact that they finished on top last year and didn’t lose a whole lot,” he said. “They had some young kids who contributed well last year. They have the most seasoned interior presence and some players in the backcourt with a lot of games under their belt as well.

“Brooks will be substantially better this year, with some of the girls they’ll bring up from the jayvee team. They’ll be very competitive. East Limestone was really young last year, like us, and really talented in spots, especially in the post. We’re all gonna be competitive with each other. It’s just gonna come down to which team can grind it out and handle pressure and handle the basketball late in the game. Which kids can make plays, and which teams have the most playmakers? I’d like to think it’s us.”

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