Last season may not have been a vintage one for Northside Lady Bear basketball coach Rickey Smith.
The Lady Bears finished 18-11 and were defeated in the 7A state quarterfinal round. But they showed glimpses of their historic past and a promising potential when they defeated then No. 1 ranked North Little Rock and won 10 of 12 games down the stretch, with both losses coming in overtime, before the quarterfinal loss to Van Buren.
With Smith entering his 24th season at the helm of the Lady Bears, he hopes his latest group can help get Northside back into position to play for a conference title along with playing for a 7A championship. Smith talked about the off-season and an early outlook for 2017-18, in a Q&A session.
Q: How has the summer gone for you and the team?
A: We've had a great summer. We've got a lot of kids that play summer basketball and we've got a lot playing AAU (basketball). Some played all the way up until last Sunday. For me being a girls' coach, it's imperative that our kids play summer basketball with AAU programs. If you drive down the street, you see guys playing at the parks, you see guys playing in their backyards, but you very, very seldom see girls playing outside, so if they're not in the gym with the coach, or in the gym with an AAU coach or trainer, they're not getting that work so I'm a big, big supporter of AAU basketball.
Q: How many camps have you gone to this year?
A: We went to four camps, four days of camp at different schools (like) Cabot, Rogers, Pottsville on multiple days and played a lot of basketball. We took the junior varsity team and varsity and had some success, but we also struggled a little bit. We're not where we need to be, but we had a very, very productive summer. Very, very, very excited about the future; we've got an outstanding group of sophomores, we've just got a lot of youth in our program that we're excited about. We're not where we need to be and we're not where we have been, but we're on the way back, I mean we really are, so very excited about the future.
Q: What did you think the biggest priority for you and (assistant coach) Scott Thompson was this off-season?
A: Just try to get as many games as we could for our young kids. We've got a very talented group of young kids and just getting them to play together, trying to get out and really evaluate our talent, evaluate their position, get them to playing together, get some team chemistry and just trying to expose the youth to the style of ball we want to play and the expectations of our program. ... We feel like we've got some really, really good athletes and we return a good senior class, they've showed great leadership this summer, and so we're excited.
Q: Is there anyone in particular you feel like has had a real good off-season so far?
A: There's so many of them. (Senior) Alexis Evans is coming back off an ACL injury, (senior) Sydney Green's coming back off an ACL injury, so we wanted to evaluate them really closely. Brenna Cooksey, a senior, is out right now with an ACL injury and so we're concerned about her, but Cierah Carey's a returning senior and Aniya Webster's a returning senior that played a lot of minutes and started for us last season and they both displayed good leadership at team camp this summer.
Q: What's going to be the biggest thing you're going to be doing in the next two weeks, especially with school starting back up?
A: Just getting it. We've got a lot of kids that had a lot of interest from some college programs, who are going to come in during September and October and watch us work out, and they really want to evaluate the young kids. Just trying to get them acclimated to the style of basketball we're going to play, the tempo which we want to play with and get the kids in tip-top shape, and just trying to get bigger, faster, stronger and continue to work in the gym daily. Last year's basketball club really finished strong, won 10 of our last 12 and lost those two in overtime. ... We finished really, really strong, and we're just trying to build off that in the off-season and continue to move forward.
Q: Last season may not have been a vintage Lady Bears season, but you had some highly competitive games. You beat No. 1 ranked North Little Rock here, you took them to overtime at their place, you took Van Buren to overtime at their place in the 7A quarterfinals, so you were pretty competitive for the most part, even in the losses.
A: The kids probably, honestly, maxed out their ability as good as any group we've had in a long time, so from a coaching standpoint, if you can get the kids to reach their maximum potential, you've got to feel really good about that and I thought we did that. I thought we got a lot of our kids improved. ... We just got a lot better as the season progressed and I really respect that group. We had some kids sign out of that (senior) class, we lost some good seniors, but they finished strong and kept the tradition going.
Q: How do you feel about this upcoming season's group of seniors?
A: I like this group of kids. They're hungry, they're hungry for some success. Three of the five I mentioned have had ACL injuries, and for them to have to sit out a year and watch, they understand how it is so easy not to be out there on the floor if anything can go wrong, and so I don't think they're taking anything for granted. I can tell you this, they know they're going to have to work. We went to camp and the sophomores we had at camp really pushed them hard, and so there's going to be a lot of depth this year and there's a lot of opportunities to provide great leadership, but they're really going to have to work to beat out this sophomore class.