COLUMBIA — Rock Bridge girls basketball coach Jill Nagel stood in front of her team at Friday's practice and reminded them of the challenges ahead on their quest for another state title.
“You can either have results or excuses, but not both,” Nagel told the Bruins from center court. “We have to find a consistency moving forward to achieve those results.”
At the Webster Winter Challenge
Rock Bridge (14-4) vs. Hazelwood Central (10-4)
WHEN: 6 p.m.
WHERE: Webster Groves High School
Last season’s Missouri Class 5 Coach of the Year knows something about attaining lofty goals, having led the Bruins to state titles in both 2008 and 2012. With a majority of last year’s championship team back again, Nagel has had to temper her expectations and remind her team that this is a different season.
Three-year starting point guard Lindsey Cunningham, who’s redshirting at Missouri, is the only player missing from last year’s championship team. But Nagel knows only a few Class 5 teams have managed to claim back-to-back titles.
To prepare for a title defense, Nagel put together a brutal schedule that featured a trip to the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix in late December. After an opening-round loss to Bishop O’Dowd from California, the top-ranked team in the nation, Rock Bridge won its final two contests. The Bruins have made numerous trips across Missouri and enter next week’s Webster Winter Challenge in Webster Groves with a 14-4 record.
“I would do it again,” Nagel said about the numerous miles her team has logged this season. “We are almost in a sense forced to have that kind of schedule because of the (lack of) Class 5A teams in mid-Missouri. We know that’s the competition that we need to play to be successful.”
Nagel, who’s in her seventh year coaching the Bruins, has built her program around a tight family atmosphere. On Friday, her 7-year-old son, Zach, ran around in a cardboard box during practice drawing laughter from the players and lightening the mood after a tense win over rival Hickman.
Last season’s squad featured three sets of sisters, and a new year didn’t bring much change for what Nagel insists is a “family within a family.”
Sophomore Sophie Cunningham inherited her older sister's role as the starting point guard and has thrived in the position, setting the table for another set of siblings, junior guards Kayla and Chayla Cheadle, on the perimeter. Sophomore Cierra Porter has been a force in the post, creating matchup nightmares for opposing teams with her imposing 6-foot-4-inch frame.
After playing a large role in the Bruins’ run last season, the sophomores' workload on offense has increased while doing their best to fill the elder Cunningham’s leadership void on and off the court.
“We are just sophomores but we had to step up our roles as well because we graduated some pretty key people last year,” said Sophie Cunningham, who led the team in scoring as a freshman and has already verbally committed to MU.
While the Bruins are currently ranked third in the state by MaxPreps.com, behind St. Louis-area powerhouses St. Joseph’s Academy and top-ranked Incarnate Word Academy, Nagel said the biggest obstacle standing in the way of another title run might be injuries. Rock Bridge has been at full strength for only seven of their 18 games this season, and Nagel told her team to take last weekend off to rest up for the stretch run.
“Everything that we do from this point forward is to prepare for postseason play,” Nagel said about the extra rest. “We need to do the little things to prepare ourselves for the playoffs.”
Rock Bridge heads into this week’s Webster Winter Challenge with visions of duplicating last season’s breakthrough tournament title that served as a springboard for their path to the state crown. If the Bruins get past a guard-oriented Hazelwood Central team a rematch with last season’s tournament runner-up, St. Joseph’s Academy, will likely await Friday.