There was a time when Ridgeland girls' basketball was annually mentioned among the state's best high school programs, culminating in the program's appearance in the state's final four in 2003.
However, success has been rare for the Lady Panthers the past few seasons as the once-strong talent pool dried up with softball and volleyball becoming more popular in the Rossville area. How rare have basketball wins become? In the past two seasons Ridgeland won a total of three games. The program had not reached double digits in single-season wins in seven years.
Those dark days are over, it seems. At 11-4 the Lady Panthers are one of the state's biggest surprises, and though coach Matt King isn't ready to declare his team a title contender, that hardly matters. What does matter is fun has returned to the basketball court and King gives all the credit to a group of players who decided enough was enough.
"It speaks to their character, in an age where immediate gratification and short-sightedness is the norm, that they have persevered through tough times with a goal of future success in mind," King said. "They bought into the idea that collectively they are capable of a lot more than they are individually. The girls are excited to be doing well, and they're enjoying playing the game again."
On the court the biggest difference is the emergence of a go-to player in senior post Tiffany Wimpy. King said she has shown as much improvement as any player he's coached. The 6-foot-2 Wimpy leads the team with 17.7 points per game, highlighted by a school-record 40 points in an overtime win over Walker County rival LaFayette.
"She came in during the summer extra motivated as a senior," King said. "She's learned how to use her body, she's gotten much stronger and her hands have gotten better. She's made herself into a good high school player with a lot of hard work."
Wimpy agreed that enduring another 20-loss season was not the way she wanted to go out. She also said the talent around her has improved -- including sophomore Destiny Irvin (15 points per game), junior point guard Katy Phillips and freshman guard Amaya Harrington -- but the real key to the newfound success was a new attitude.
"Last year we had a mindset that we were going to lose, so when we got behind we just gave up," Wimpy said. "We didn't play together, just kind of did our own thing."
Both coach and star said a shocking win over Class AA perennial state power Dade County was the proof the players needed that this season was going to be different.
"It was our third game and this is a team that has beaten us badly in the past, but the girls came out and just played like a team and won by 16," King said. "Suddenly they believed."
While King doesn't want to look ahead, his team can't help but think about extending its season. Are the state playoffs a possibility?
"If we keep this up, we can make it," Wimpy said. "We can still improve and we can't take any game for granted, but that would be a great way to go out."
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or at 423-757-6296.