BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
When Farmington’s girls basketball team lost to Nashville in heartbreaking fashion in last season’s Class 4A state championship game, the pain was real.
Cardinals head coach Brad Johnson knew he had to handle the situation emotionally the best he could and it would not just be a short term answer.
It appears Johnson pushed all the right buttons as Farmington (28-1) heads into its first postseason having not lost to an in-state team during the regular season.
The Cardinals, who feature Arkansas signee Jenna Lawrence (6-3), face either Prairie Grove or Pea Ridge on Thursday at 4 p.m. in the Class 4A-1 district tournament at Berryville.
“It’s funny,” Johnson said. “The pain was really raw initially and that was okay. I told them that I thought we needed our time of mourning a little bit and I do think that pain was still real in the offseason.
“There was some of it that even lingered into the summer, but at some point that pain turns to focus and intensity and that is kind of where they have gone with it. Once we got into November, it became our mission to play as good a basketball as we could possibly play.”
Nashville’s Sidney Townsend hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 3.3 seconds left that shocked Farmington 42-41 in the title game.
“Honestly, we quit talking about last year and we have tried to focus on every single night and can we play better than the game before,” Johnson said. “Can we get to a level that it would be hard for others to play and then on top of that, what kind of focus to sharpen yourself to that point.”
Farmington, whose only loss this season was to Overland Park’s Blue Valley North in a tournament on Dec. 10, is riding a 24-game winning streak.
The Cardinals put up a 72-33 road win at Gravette on Friday night to close out the regular season with an unblemished 14-0 conference mark.
“That’s kind of been who we are all year and we always talk about the very next game, we talk about the very next day in practice, we talk about being one percent every single day,” Johnson said.
“We started that with our first practice and today (Tuesday) I looked on my practice schedule and we are 96 practices in. So I don’t know if it is a real thing, but if you are one percent every day, we should be 96 percent better than day one when we walked out on the practice court.
“We are going to keep kind of driving that engine and that is the thing that we do with them every day – one percent better. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to play your best basketball right now, but we are driving to that point to be playing our best basketball and be one percent better. If we do then everything else will take care of itself.”
Johnson hoped his team would be peaking right now and that appears to be the case as well with seemingly with an increase in energy.
“Our goal is to always be playing our best basketball at the end of February and the first of March,” Johnson said. “So at the beginning of the year – and I know it is cliche – but you want a basketball season to be a marathon and not a sprint.
“Our kids right now are playing at a really high level right now. I will tell you that postseason has arrived and there is kind of a renewed since of energy and you can feel it. There is a little more bounce in their step, competition in practice right now is really, really high.”
Farmington already has a spot in next weeks’s regional tournament regardless of how it fares on Thursday, but Johnson wants a survive or go home mentality in each game from here on out.
Farmington is 117-14 in its last 131 games while Lawrence, who started her career in Melbourne, is 129-6 iwith only one home loss since beginning organized basketball in the third grade.
“These kids have been around winning for a long, long time and they know when you get to this point it is step your game up because you win or go home,” Johnson said. “You kind of sense that sense of urgency with them and that’s a lot of fun.”
Lawrence, who topped off 2,000 career points this season, is joined by 6-3 sophomore Zoey Bershers and 5-5 junior point guard Reese Shirey in the starting lineup and the Cardinals are bolstered by several others who have gotten significant playing time.
“Having kids that can really step in, and I have said all year long, that we have like seven or eight kids that on any given night could start,” Johnson said. “ We have moved our line ups around two, three, four, five, six times during the year. Different starting line ups and some of that is just to get kids ready to make sure they are ready and locked in for that moment. Their number is going to be called and you want them to be ready for that moment.”
Depth is key when making a postseason run per Johnson.
“Depth is critical and one of the interesting things about this team is I think they are very versatile,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of kids, not just ones that can score, but kids that bring height and an attack mode on the defensive end, kids that can really rebound, we have got some kids that can really pass and play well in transition. It is kind of an interesting mix in that they all understand their role.
“In fact, the other night on the road at Gravette, Marin Adams comes off the bench and she gets 20 points and 6 rebounds. Those are the things that you have to have because down the stretch, you are going to face foul trouble. Really it is just the nature of the beast with the way we play.”
It would nice to have a rematch against Nashville (22-3), but there’s certainly no guarantee either team will end up in Hot Springs playing for the title again.
“We can’t focus on Nashville, obviously they are out there, but there are a lot of other good programs and a lot of really good players and coaches still in front of us,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, all we can control is how we go out and perform and prepare every day and this group has really been good at that and I am really proud of them at this point.”
Photo by John D. James