Ringgold girls bounce back from 1-5 start to reach WPIAL playoffs

| Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 10:15 p.m.

The Ringgold girls basketball team really must like pressure.

A 1-5 record in the first half of section play would be enough for plenty of teams to give up playoff hopes.

But the Rams (11-9) reversed that record over the second half of the season to finish in a fourth-place tie with Thomas Jefferson at 6-6 in Section 4-AAA, earning a spot in the WPIAL playoffs, which get under way Friday and Saturday.

“We got to four section losses really quickly and operated with a back-against-the-wall mentality,” Ringgold first-year coach Laura Grimm said. “They played out of their mind from that point forward.”

Ringgold watched its preseason goal of finishing 8-4 and in the top three of the section slip away after suffering a string of narrow defeats, including two-point losses to Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth Forward and a three-point loss to Belle Vernon.

Then the Rams found a focus that had eluded them and rattled off five straight wins.

“You could see it in the way they came to practice, in the way they prepared,” Grimm said. “For a group of high school girls, you might see flashes of it, but to see that every day was really special.”

Even when things seemed bleak, the girls were never ready to give up.

“We just had to keep focused, forget about the past and continue to go because we knew that the goal wasn't over yet,” senior forward Charise Barner said. “That's really what helped us. We all stayed positive and encouraged each other.”

With just six varsity players, the team struggled to keep up with opponents at times, and an inability to close out games haunted it for the first half of the season.

Still, the thin roster didn't discourage Grimm from implementing an aggressive man-to-man defense.

It would be easy to question the benefit of working such a thin roster so hard, but with 6-foot-6 junior West Virginia recruit Marlena Schmidt patrolling the paint, building the team around defense was a no-brainer, Grimm said. It's paid off, evidenced by Ringgold's section-leading 37.4 points allowed per game.

“We always go by ‘defense wins games,' and it shows whenever you hold a team down to less than 30 points,” senior guard Eleni Radic said. “It makes it easier for us to run offenses. It's tiring, but with the conditioning we've done, it gets easier.”

Having so few players hasn't been all bad though. Grimm inherited a team that lacked cohesiveness on and off the court but saw that quickly change this season.

“I love those girls like they're my family,” Radic said. “We've been together throughout the season probably every single day, whether it was a practice, game or hanging out. It's helped us bond in game chemistry on the court, too.”

The WPIAL released playoff pairings Tuesday, with Ringgold slotted to play South Fayette (12-10) of Section 5 at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Chartiers Valley.

The players won't be the only ones working hard on the court in preparation.

“We have a pretty athletic and well-put-together coaching staff,” Grimm said, “so we're going to have to do a good job of being South Fayette for the next few days.”

Gary Horvath is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at ghorvath@tribweb.com.

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