Hickory Ridge girls’ high school basketball coach Tolonda Rose-Simmons admits she has a hard time forgetting about her team’s final game in the 2016-17 season.
After winning their first 31 games and storming to the school’s first state championship berth, the Ragin’ Bulls led by 12 points over Northern Guilford at halftime of the state final, just 16 minutes from getting fitted for championship rings.
Then the dream died with a sudden quickness Rose-Simmons just can’t shake.
Northern Guilford rallied to win its first championship 66-64 and denied Hickory Ridge’s bid to become the first girls’ team from Cabarrus County to win a state title in nine years. Now, the Ragin’ Bulls have moved up a class, to North Carolina’s most competitive in 4A, but the goal - and dream - remains the same: win a state title.
“Personally,” said Rose-Simmons, a former college coach at UNC Charlotte, Barber-Scotia and Winthrop, “I think about that game a lot. But at the same time, it’s an opportunity to learn things, and we don’t let that define who we are today. It was one game, the championship game, and it was the most important game because we hadn’t lost.”
Two years ago, when Hickory Ridge lost in the third round of the N.C. 3A playoffs to Ashbrook, Rose-Simmons told her players that if they stayed together they would play in the 2017 state final. After losing last March, she walked into the locker room, looked around at her players, tears streaming down their faces, and she took a deep breath.
“I told them I loved them,” she said, “and that I wouldn’t trade them for anything. When I told them after the 24-6 season (in 2015-16) that if everybody stayed together and we continued to believe that we could be in Chapel Hill (site of the 2017 finals), it came true. I try to not to say things I don’t believe, and I said the same thing to the (state finals’) team, too.”
This season, Hickory Ridge returns five starters from the state runners-up, including Western Carolina recruit Gabby Smith, North Carolina recruit Nia Daniel and Lenoir Rhyne recruit Alyssa Wagner. Joining the team are two key transfers: former Butler all-conference star Rinnah Green, and former Rocky River point guard Courtney Meadows, a 5-foot-5 point guard who committed to Georgetown.
Hickory Ridge will play in the Southwestern 4A, a league of mostly Mecklenburg County teams, and will try to establish the same type of dominance in 4A that it has achieved in 3A under Rose-Simmons.
Hickory Ridge was 4-18 in the 2012-13 season. Rose-Simmons started the next year, going 15-11. Her team was 19-6 in the 2014-15 season and has been 55-6 since then.
Rose-Simmons was a college head coach at Barber-Scotia for four years before spending eight years as an assistant at Charlotte,where she’d been a four-year starter, and two at Winthrop as an assistant. She said those experiences helped shape her coaching style.
And like her players, Rose-Simmons said she can’t wait to get started this season.
“I think everybody’s motivated and hungry,” she said. “The difference is we’ve moved up a division from 3A to 4A, but we’ve got a good nucleus back and some really good new players. We plan to take it game-by-game and set some solid goals. But, of course, the ultimate goal is win a state championship.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr