Two weeks ago, the Northside Lady Bears basketball team rolled into the 6A State Tournament as the No. 1 ranked overall team in the state
However, the Lady Bears' bid for a repeat 6A state title was denied in the closing seconds of a tough loss to Fayetteville in the semifinals. A few days later, the coronavirus pandemic forced the shutdown of schools and athletic facilities, and also led to the postponement of several basketball title games in Arkansas, including the 6A final between Fayetteville and Bentonville.
Lady Bear coach Rickey Smith talked about the loss to Fayetteville, the team's 21-game winning streak, adjusting to a new lifestyle in the midst of the pandemic and even his passion for fishing in a Q&A session.
Q: Even though your team wasn't affected by the shutdown, you did have several coaching friends who were. How have you reached out to them?
A: It was a very surprising ending to me. In 28 years as a coach and all the years before that as a player, growing up watching my older brothers and sisters and teams, I never experienced an ending quite like this one. ... (Greenwood coach Clay) Reeves and I are great friends and we talked, and up until I think (March 13), he expected to play (the 5A state final that was to have been played March 14) and his team was on the court (March 13) getting ready to play a state championship. From our standpoint, getting upset in the semifinals was tough and it was a tough ending, but it's the uncertainty of not playing and am I going to get to play or do we play down the road, what does the future look like, then that would really drive me crazy. ... It is a unique situation when you look at the seniors who have worked all year to get to play in that state championship game, and you just kind of feel sorry for them; they only get one senior year.
Q: Being in the (Arkansas Activities Association's enforced) "dead period" right now, you haven't been able to be in contact with your players, but what do you think they've been kind of going through these past couple of weeks with this pandemic?
A: My wife (Krystle) is actually the principal at Sunnymede, and she reached out to Jersey (Wolfenbarger, the Lady Bears' standout point guard) to get her to put on a short, P.E.-type exercise from within the home of some drills and exercises and (Krystle) posted that; she sent it to her elementary kids, so Jersey was a great help in that. Just trying to stay active, just trying to stay positive and do our part to social distance. It is new and it is difficult. ... It's a major change, but we're trying to do our part as a family and I know our school district's doing a great job. I commend our school district on the way they're communicating with our students and with our administration and parents and teachers. ... It's amazing some of the ideas our teachers are coming up with and the way they're challenging their students from home. It's just a situation we've all got to handle and make the best of.
Q: It's been a couple of weeks now since the season ended. Can you kind of reflect and look back on the season that you had in general?
A: As a coach, the hardest thing I've ever had to experience is to go into the locker room after a big, big loss in the state tournament; state finals, state semifinals, and try to console those kids. ... The way it ended was very similar to last year and we talked a few weeks ago about the scenario of one shot deciding the outcome or a bounce here and a bounce there. This year, the bounce never really bounced our way. Now, reflecting on our season, we had a phenomenal season; we win 26 basketball games, go 14-0 in one of the toughest girls conferences in the state (the 6A-Central) and play a very challenging schedule as the defending state champs with everybody coming after you.
Q: What do you think was the turning point of the season?
A: After losing back-to-back games at home (to Oklahoma school Classen SAS and to Greenwood in the Taco Bell Tournament of Champions), that Monday practice. You're embarrassed, you're humbled at home, and we came back in Monday and we had a great practice. The kids' attitudes, they were hungry, they were trying to get something back that was taken away from them; our focus at that point was to worry about the solution and not the problem. Our kids bought into that, and we didn't lose another game until the state semifinals.
Q: Let's look ahead to next season. Believe it or not, Jersey and Tracey (Bershers) will be seniors and obviously, having those two back will be tremendous. What are some other things you're looking forward to about next season?
A: To think, we're already talking about (Wolfenbarger and Bershers') senior year, it just seems like time has flown by; I can remember just being excited about the opportunity to play them as freshmen, much less as seniors, but not only those two but our entire senior class. They lost one game as 10th graders and four games this year and went 54-5 and in conference, they were 27-1, so a pretty good record for a senior class. I feel good about the returning players like (incoming junior) Haitiana Releford. ... There will be some really, really high expectations coming back in for next year. Hopefully, everybody returns healthy.
Q: Work has already started on the new Northside basketball arena (scheduled to open by the 2021-22 season). What are your thoughts on them finally starting work on the new arena?
A: I know the weather slowed us down and there have been a lot of challenges, but I know our district's working really hard to get it going. ... I tell you, our district's done a fabulous job of going out and looking at other arenas and trying to make it as nice as they can without going overboard, without spending a crazy amount of money on an athletic facility. Am I excited to be in a new arena and have a new locker room and showers and training room and weight room? Absolutely. But for me personally, Rickey Smith, I'm probably more excited about the opportunity to have our freshmen on campus (Northside is also building a new freshman center) with us daily, to where I can go in every morning and our coaching staff at Northside High School can go in and work with our freshmen one year sooner than we've ever been able to do in my 26 years at Northside. ... We're beyond excited to be able to play at a new arena, but to actually get our kids a year earlier and get to spend one complete year working with them (will also be beneficial).
Q: Perhaps your favorite hobby is to go fishing. With the shutdown, have you been able to get in more time fishing than before?
A: Not last week, because we were still teaching. This week, with spring break, we are off and I did have a trip planned (Wednesday). But unfortunately, the weather's not cooperating; the water's high, a lot of ramps are closed and we're still trying to follow the social distancing. ... When we're not at school, we're still meeting as a department and we're sharing documents, communicating with our kids throughout the day and trying to make sure we still give every student every opportunity to get the work. ... For me, this is almost like a movie; you never think you'll experience anything like this in your lifetime and now that we are, you start to see a lot of positives, a lot of positive things happen across the country in a bad situation. ... I love the fact that I'm getting with my kids and spending some time together. We'll make the best of it; we always do.
Q: What are some of your favorite fishing spots?
A: Lake Tenkiller (in Oklahoma), Lake Dardanelle and the Arkansas River.
Q: What else makes them such great fishing spots in your opinion?
A: Just my familiarity. ... It's just the challenge of trying to catch a fish, then multiple fish. It kicks my butt, and it is very humbling to me.