Girls basketball in Union County was all about Porter Ridge last year. The Pirates breezed through nonconference opponents with one of the most dangerous starting lineups around, featuring sharp-shooting guards Jada Huntley and Jasmine Huntley. They were one of the hottest squads in the area and boasted a 7-0 Southern Carolinas conference record, knocking off rival Union County teams like Weddington, Marvin Ridge and Monroe without any problem.
With coach Ina Thompson spearheading their dominating run, the Pirates made a deep march in the 4A state playoffs with their eye on nothing less than a championship ring. After blowing over their first four opponents, winning by an average of 20 points per game, the Pirates tipped off against Greensboro Page and saw their dreams crushed in the state championship semifinals, falling to Page, 46-36.
Given their hugely successful season, the Pirates certainly had nothing to hang their head about, but current senior Bobbi Jones said nothing compares to the feeling of falling right before the state title game.
“There’s a picture of our team after the game where we’re walking back to the locker room and all have our arms around each other,” she said. “You can see in that moment the pain that we had because we lost. It was absolutely heartbreaking. But we knew we still had each other. You get back to the locker room and there are a lot of tears, even more tears on the bus and even more tears at home. But you have to focus on the great things accomplished.”
After the final buzzer ended the Pirates’ hope of a state championship, the underclassmen knew that the following year would look a lot different with the Huntley duo – the Pirates’ two best players – graduating. Jada Huntley currently plays for Catawba College while Jasmine Huntley is averaging eight points per game at UNC-Pembroke, leaving Porter Ridge without their leading scorers.
But it wasn’t just graduating two of their top players that was going to affect how the 2013-2014 season unfolded for the Pirates – they were moving up a conference, to the stacked Southwestern 4A, putting them along the ranks of Charlotte powers Myers Park, Butler and Rocky River in arguably one of the most competitive conferences in the state.
And under the circumstances, the Pirates have made the most of their new challenges, boasting an 11-4 record overall and 3-3 record in conference play. But the adjustment process hasn’t been easy, as Jones said the Pirates have had to learn an entirely new level of basketball.
“Compared to last year, we’re so much more intense,” she said. “We went through a stage where we dropped games to Myers Park and then Butler, and I think it’s because we didn’t have that fire at all. Coach Thompson used the word ‘initiative’ and I feel like ever since then, if there’s a ball on the floor, you have three of our girls diving for it. We’re all in now.
“It’s definitely different than what we were used to. You go from playing 2A and 3A schools to these big 4AA schools that are just breeding a melting pot of athletes. We got pushed around in our first conference game and we thought, ‘OK, now we know how it’s going to be so let’s step up and get after it.’”
Fellow senior Jade Jones, who witnessed firsthand the success of last season and has been instrumental for Thompson in transitioning to Southwestern 4A, wasn’t hesitant to acknowledge the intensity of their new conference.
“We realized really quickly that these teams are physical,” she said. “That means we have to pick up the pace. We have to play like they play, there’s no more of this just getting by.”
Even with only four losses – pretty impressive given their brutal schedule – the Pirates aren’t exactly pleased with their blemished record. As if the conference shift wasn’t enough, the Pirates have been bitten by the injury bug, sidelining several key players during the course of the season. Jade Jones missed the first six weeks of play due to a broken thumb. Bobbi Jones is currently hobbling in a walking boot because of a tendon injury while other starters have been plagued with mono, an Achilles injury and several bumps and bruises along the way.
“The injuries certainly haven’t helped us,” Thompson said. “We’re in this new conference which is a challenge in itself, but injuries always make things more difficult. Fortunately, the girls are learning to step up and we’ve got a roster full of girls ready to come in when they’re needed.”
With Bobbi, the Pirates’ leading rebounder, on the sidelines for the next two weeks, Jade has help in starters Kara Cunningham, Shaigna Wentz, Ireland Massey and Sarah Welch – a combination that’s proving to work for the Pirates, who have grabbed their last two of three including a big win over 2A power Monroe.
Wentz, the 5-foot-11 junior forward, joined the Pirates for the first time this season after spending her sophomore year at Queen’s Grant High and her freshman season at Forest Hills. As the team’s leading scorer – she’s averaging 15 points per game – Bobbi said her contributions have been an immediate asset to the young Pirate
“She immediately clicked with the team,” she said. “We love her. Obviously she’s a great asset and she’s helped us with scoring, rebounding, really all over the court on offense and defense. She has her up and down days like we all do, but overall she’s a huge help to our program.”
The Jones’ will need every bit of their own talent as well as Wentz’s to be on point as their schedule picks up in coming weeks. They’ll take on Myers Park, Butler and Rocky River again before playoffs. And after last year’s long postseason run, both Bobbi and Jade won’t be satisfied unless they continue to make a name for Porter Ridge athletics regardless of the adversity in Southwestern 4A.
“We’ve always been a school, in my opinion, that has never gotten credit no matter what in any sport for the things we accomplish,” Bobbi Jones said. “Not from Charlotte, not from Union County – nothing. We had this amazing season last year and it’s like no one acknowledged it. We didn’t get anything. So it’s put a fire under us that’s made us want to be even better. We didn’t understand why we weren’t getting credit and we felt disrespected. So we’re trying to prove ourselves again this year.”
“Everyone tries to put us down, no matter what conference we’re in,” Jade Jones added. “But we get back up and we keep fighting in every game. What anyone says won’t stop us. We can be like last year.”