88
      Saturday
      93 / 71
      Sunday
      93 / 72
      Monday
      86 / 70

      Defending their crown

      THE ROCK BRIDGE Lady Bruins are good, very good. How good?They have a player on their team who's signed to play college basketball.Mmmm, okay. So? A lot of teams have one of those.She can't crack the starting lineup.Oh."To bring a senior off the bench who's going to play college ball," Rock Bridge coach Jill Nagel said, "that's a nice luxury to have."Indeed. That would be senior 5-11 Kennedy Smith, who's signed with Missouri Baptist.Smith is just one of many weapons at Nagel's disposal, as No. 2 Rock Bridge (23-5) prepares for No. 4 Blue Springs (28-2) in the Class 5 semifinals at 8:20 p.m. Friday at Mizzou Arena."I've got a bunch of great athletes who make me my assistant coaches look good," Nagel said.Besides Smith, there's Sophie Cunningham, a 6-1 sophomore for the Lady Bruins, who are seeking their second straight state championship. Cunningham leads the team in both scoring (15 ppg.) and assists (3.5)."There's not much Sophie can't do," Nagel said. "She's just so gifted, and she uses those gifts to make herself better and everyone around her better."The team's leading rebounder is Cierra Porter, a 6-4 sophomore, who snags seven boards a game.Yes, arguably the team's two best players are sophomores. Good luck to the rest of the state through 2015."She just gets better every day," Nagel said. "She's coming on at the right rate."Along with Cunningham and Porter, other probable starters for Rock Bridge are: Kayla Cheadle (6-1, jr.), Makenzie Skrabal (5-6, sr.) and Audrey Holt (6-1, jr.).More evidence on how good this team is --- the Lady Bruins have made this drive to the Final Four without their team leader, 6-foot senior Hannah Dressler, the daughter of former MU standout Mark Dressler.She went down with a season-ending knee injury in late January."With her being a senior, to lose that senior year, that's pretty tough," Nagel said. "As I've always said, she was the rock of Rock Bridge."When we needed a rebound, she was always there. When we needed a score, she was always there. She was a great senior leader."Everyone's kind of rallying around her."The rally cry continues Friday night, as this will be a rematch of last year's championship game, a 52-41 Rock Bridge win.It will also be a rematch from a game in December, when the Lady Bruins won a 64-32 laugher over Blue Springs."That seems like a season ago," Nagel said. "They've completely changed their offense since that game, so there's not a lot you can take away from it. That would be a false security on our end."Blue Springs --- which is riding a 21-game winning streak --- is making its fifth straight appearance in the Final Four. This has turned into Groundhog Day for the Lady Wildcats, as they've finished second the past four years.The Lady Bruins, meanwhile, are odds-on favorites to defend their crown. But ... "As a coach," Nagel said, "there are 100 things to worry about."That's what coaches do, worry. They even worry about the things they're forgetting to worry about."These girls are very internally motivated, I don't have to do much motivation," Nagel said. "This is something they want for each other, even more than they want it for themselves."They're such a tight-knit group and they love seeing each other succeed. That's what's makes this team so special, and they have a goal in front of them they very much want to achieve. That helps keep them grounded."You could say they're grounded in Rock.IIIIF YOU'RE A basketball fan, you surely know of a team who just can't win on the road. Maybe it's even your team. Frustrating, isn't it?Winning on the road is more often about guts and character than it is about talent.The Hickman Kewpies (26-2) have all three, as they're undefeated in true road games this season."We've been a lot of hostile environments and there have been times where things haven't gone our way," Hickman coach David Johnson said. "But these guys just don't quit, they believe they can win the game and they'll do whatever it takes."Any advice --- hypothetically speaking, of course --- for Frank Haith?"That's a different story," Johnson said with a laugh. "You just have to finish games and we've been able to do that, and our guys feel very confident about doing that."If the Kewpies finish with two more wins, they'll win the school's third state championship --- but the first in 51 years. It's been 31 years since Hickman even made it to the Final Four."It's been a lot of fun," Johnson said. "They're a great group of kids, very hard working and very determined, and they're very coachable."The top-ranked Kewpies (26-2) --- who will meet No. 3 Rockhurst (24-5) in the Class 5 semifinals at 5 p.m. Friday at Mizzou Arena --- almost didn't get there.In their last two games, they were forced to overtime before outlasting Washington, 53-49, before rallying from a seven-point deficit in the final 2 1/2 minutes to stun Kickapoo, 73-68."It's never easy," said Johnson, a 1980 Hickman graduate. "We've had to find different ways to win some ball games, but that just shows you the character of our team."Probable starters for the Kewpies are:* Jimmy Whitt (6-2, soph., 18 ppg.) "He's been nothing short of spectacular for us this year," Johnson said. "His scoring speaks for itself, but it's all the other things he does that helps us be successful."* Chris Clark (6-3, jr., 14 ppg.) "He's been our energizer bunny and our leader, both on and off the basketball court. He gives us the tempo we need on both the offensive and defensive end."* Cecil Williams (6-6, sr., 10 ppg., 9 rpg.) --- the only senior on the roster to see considerable playing time. "He's been very solid for us on both ends of the floor."* Mason Murray (6-0, jr., 9 ppg.)* and Jordan Jones (6-2, sr., 5 ppg.)The top player off the bench is Douglas Johnson (6-2, jr., 9 ppg.), the son of the coach."When we've needed big shots and big plays," dad said, "he's been able to step up and make those."Like father, like son, as Mr. Johnson was quite a player during his day. But these days, it's all about the 2013 Kewpies, who are stirring some serious Purple Passion."The buzz is high, very high," coach Johnson said. "Everyone is just really excited and ecstatic for the opportunity to be in the Final Four and compete for a state championship."We're going to give it our best shot."