HARRIMAN — For the Englewood Elementary girls, a trip back to where their basketball program has expected to be every year. For the Riceville Elementary boys, the latest and greatest breakthrough yet in an already historic postseason.
The Lady Rams from Englewood began Section 2-A tournament championship evening Saturday at Harriman High School with a 33-18 win over Oliver Springs Middle. Riceville’s Wildcats then followed and capped the night with a 46-27 victory over H.Y. Livesay Middle.
With their respective section championships, Englewood and Riceville secured berths in the TMSAA Class A state tournament, which will take place Friday, Feb. 10, and Saturday, Feb. 11, in the Murfreesboro area.
For Riceville’s boys, it will be their program’s first trip to state. This year’s Wildcats had already gone the furthest any team from Riceville had even before winning the section championship Saturday.
Riceville’s boys have won county championships seven of the last eight years, but their previous section tournament experience had been marked by several narrow defeats in the first or second round before finally breaking through with this year’s run.
“And I told those boys that have been so close the past few years that came out and celebrated with us that this is just as much for them as it is these boys in the locker room,” said Wildcats head coach Tyler Sauceman. “They helped pave the way, and they are the ones that had to take those sour tastes in their mouths so these boys could run with it. So they’re all special. It’s an amazing accomplishment for them to get to state.”
For Englewood’s girls, it is a return to the big event after having missed out on it last year. The Lady Rams, who won the Class A state title in 2020 and were runners-up in 2021, have now reached state three out of the last four years.
This is the fifth year the TMSAA has held state tournaments for basketball. It started doing so for the 2018-2019 season.
“It’s exciting. We knew that in Englewood, we have a rich tradition of girls’ basketball that translates to the high school (at McMinn Central),” said Lady Rams head coach Marc Davis. “And that’s what girls do in Englewood, they play basketball.”
With a 29-point performance Saturday, including five 3-pointers, Riceville eighth grader Jaxson Gonzalez was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player on the boys’ side. Dax Pennington and Eli Hope were named to the All-Tournament Team, as was Englewood’s Corey Brackett.
Leading the Wildcats to state is what Gonzalez had been looking forward to for a long time.
“It means a lot because I grew up since the third grade watching these teams play, and I had dreamed of being in a Riceville uniform and playing for state,” Gonzalez said. “And I couldn’t have gotten it without all my teammates and all the work that we put in practice.”
Englewood’s Lily Wright, who finished the Lady Rams’ title game win with a team-high 14 points, was the girls’ tournament MVP. Malea Masingale and Alahna Powell were named to the All-Tournament team.
Having been a seventh grader last year on the Englewood team that did not make it to state, Wright and the Lady Rams worked harder leading up to this season to ensure that would not happen again.
“It was a lot of work to get back to state,” Wright said. “Our team worked really, really hard for this moment.”
The Riceville boys begin the state tournament against East Nashville Middle 5 p.m. Friday at Rockvale High School. If the Wildcats win, they play the state championship game 3 p.m. Saturday at Stewarts Creek High School. A loss would put Riceville in the consolation game 3 p.m. Saturday at Stewarts Creek Middle.
Englewood’s girls start state against East Robertson Middle 8 p.m. Friday at Rockvale High. If the Lady Rams win, they play the state title game 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Stewarts Creek High. A loss would put Englewood in the consolation game 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Stewarts Creek Middle.
ENGLEWOOD 33, OLIVER SPRINGS 18: The Lady Rams’ coaching staff felt no need to change their strategy even as Oliver Springs made four 3-pointers in the first quarter to stake out a 14-9 lead over Englewood.
Those outside shots soon died out for Oliver Springs, and for two whole quarters it could not find another single point against the Lady Rams. A Wright hoop inside and a Masingale steal-and-score were the start of a 15-0 run that took up the second quarter, as Englewood surged ahead to a 24-14 halftime advantage.
“Coach (Renee) Stinson, my assistant coach, she had told me, she said, ‘Weather the storm. Weather the storm. Let’s not deviate from the plan,’” Davis said. “We knew that, in scouting them, that they had the ability to shoot threes but they just hadn’t shown it lately. So what our hope was that they would miss some of those, we could get going and we knew they weren’t that deep on the bench than they wanted to go. So we knew we could tire their legs out, and those shots were going to go. And we talked about location, rotation, blocking out, all week.”
That shutdown defensive effort continued into the third quarter, which ended with Englewood up 29-14. A putback of a miss with 3:15 left in the game was Oliver Spring’s first two points since the first quarter.
“It’s like our coach says, focus,” said Masingale of the Lady Rams’ defensive effort. “He always wants us to be balanced, and we just focused and handled it well.”
Masingale, an eighth grader and younger sister of current Central standout Molly Masingale, finished with 13 points, including the team’s lone 3-pointer. Powell scored four points and Kytalin Davis two.
RICEVILLE 46, H.Y. LIVESAY 27: The Wildcats led 17-5 after one quarter after a 12-0 start. Riceville’s first 15 points came on five 3-pointers, three from Gonzalez and one each from Pennington and Hope.
“We work on it in practice every day, and I want to thank my teammates because they gave me open looks, either screens or driving and kicking,” Gonzalez said. “And my confidence has built up. We all have confidence, and confidence is key. And without them, we wouldn’t be here.”
H.Y. Livesay, from Claiborne County, could never get Riceville’s lead back within single digits. The Wildcats, a much more guard-oriented team this year than in past seasons, led 28-12 at halftime.
“We knew when we had tryouts and I saw who was trying out and I saw who was coming back, I knew we were going to have to play different this year,” Sauceman said. “We’ve had posts for every year I’ve been here who we could throw it into and get us a bucket. We didn’t have that luxury this year, so we had to change what we wanted to do. And they loved it, because they have a long leash and we like to shoot the three-ball. And I said it all year, ‘Boys, if we run our offense the way we can and hit shots the way that we can, we’re tough.’ And we came out in that first quarter and I just think we blasted them right off the bat.”
Livesay had gotten within 38-25 before a Pennington layup off a cut to the basket and a Gonzalez three-point play effectively put the game away for Riceville. The Wildcats were up 46-27 at the end of the third quarter.
“Shout out to Livesay, they’re a fantastic team. Shawn Smith is a fantastic coach, that’s a great group of guys, and it was our night tonight,” Sauceman said. “But kudos to them, they had an amazing season, as well. But we hit shots and we were able to build that lead, and then our defense just locked in and we made it so difficult for them to even get looks at the rim, and they couldn’t cut in to their deficit. And every time we needed to make a play, it was somebody else making a play, whether it was Dax getting an and-1 layup, or Eli coming up with a big rebound. Everybody made plays when they needed to tonight.”
In addition to Gonzalez’s totals, Pennington finished with seven points, Hope six and Bryce Mullins and Maddox Frazier two. But Sauceman considered the milestone a team effort, even from those who have not seen the court much.
“Jaxson, Bryce, Eli, David (Aguirre), they get a lot of the attention because they’re the ones out on the court doing it,” Sauceman said. “But I’ve got about six eighth-graders that show up every day, they practice hard, they’re the ones pushing these first-team guys. And I want to make sure they get credit, too. Corbin (McKeehan), Seth (Savage), Judah (Roche), Labron (Atchley), Dreydon (Wilkins), Matthew (Woods), all those guys. I know they don’t get to play in hardly any games, but in practice they’re the ones pushing us and making us better, too.”