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Rock Bridge girls basketball uses size to its full potential

Friday, February 15, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:24 p.m. CST, Saturday, February 16, 2013
Sophie Cunningham, left, shoots a basket while Cierra Porter reacts during practice Tuesday at Rock Bridge High School. Cunningham, a 6-foot-1-inch guard, and Porter, a 6-foot-4-inch forward, are two of the tallest players on the Rock Bridge girls basketball team.

COLUMBIA — Rock Bridge girls basketball coach Jill Nagel was frustrated.

With time winding down in the third quarter and her team up by 40 points in a Jan. 7 game against Jefferson City, a long 3-point attempt from Jays guard Megan Foster bounded off the front rim and past three Bruins defenders, right back into Foster's hands.

Nagel immediately shot up from her chair and expressed displeasure that her team hadn't gotten the rebound. 

A few seats down the bench, senior forward Hannah Dressler, sidelined with a complex knee injury, shouted encouragement to her teammates the next time Jefferson City had the ball.

"Box out ... Box out ... Box out!"

It doesn't take long to realize that the Bruins take a great deal of pride in their rebounding.

Ranked No. 2 in Missouri's Class 5, according to MaxPreps, and one of the tallest teams in the state, the defending state champions rolled out five players taller than 6 feet at the start of the season along with two players topping out at 5-foot-11. By comparison, rival Hickman has just one player taller than 5-foot-10 (6-foot-1 Ellie Johnson).

The Bruins rolled through the opening two months of the year without a blemish against in-state competition to build a 13-4 mark. Even against nationally-ranked out-of-state competition, Rock Bridge was rarely challenged in the paint.

A good portion of that rebounding dominance was because of Dressler, the co-captain who most embodied Nagel's hustle-first philosophy, oftentimes diving on the floor for loose balls and scrapping for what the coach called "50-50 balls." The team lost their senior leader on Jan. 23, against Hickman, when Dressler's trademark hustle took a turn for the worst on one of those 50-50 balls, leaving her with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, a partially-torn meniscus in her knee, and a sprained medial collateral ligament.

Gone were standout performances like Dressler's 14-rebound effort in last spring's state title victory.

Gone were the 6-foot senior's seven rebounds per game.

"When Hannah went down, we had to regroup," said Nagel about her team's rebounding philosophy. "I reminded the team that they had to box out every possession and make up for her hustle."

Fundamentals became even more important, Nagel said. The coach pushed rebounding harder than normal.

While Rock Bridge still towers over opponents, the coach doesn't want her team to rely upon its overwhelming size. Since Nagel took over as the head coach of the Bruins eight years ago, she's made a point of emphasizing a mindset of fundamentals and consistency when it comes to rebounding.

Each season before the first game, Nagel decides upon a number for her team. She sets a rebounding goal for the Bruins, motivating her players to limit the opposing team to a certain amount of offensive rebounds.

This season, the number was two per game.

"She (coach Nagel) always tells us not to just rely upon our height and to box out and clear out," said 6-4 sophomore center Cierra Porter about her coach's philosophy on rebounding. "I've always been the tallest (player on the floor) or like equal with our opponents ... you can't just count on that getting you the board, though."

Junior guard Chayla Cheadle — whose 5-11 wiry frame led the team with 22 points against the Jays — has only played against one taller player at her position all season, and that was against the top-ranked team in the nation at the time, Bishop O'Dowd (Calif.) High School. 

Nagel's daily focus on the intricacies of rebounding combined with the Bruins' imposing size has paid clear dividends: Rock Bridge has only been outrebounded twice this season on the way to a 17-5 record and a top seed in the upcoming postseason.

"We push rebounding every day, as much if not more than anything else," Nagel said. "Before each game, we tell the (players) to play big, find the mismatches and take advantage of them. If you go inside, we have size, if you keep it on the perimeter, we have big guards out there, too."

Perhaps no player has rebounded harder in Dressler's absence than the versatile Porter.

That was on display during box out drills in Tuesday's practice, as Porter corralled rebounds on back-to-back possessions. On the first board, Porter rolled in from the left baseline, sprinting past her defender and skying for the rebound, snagging it with ease.

On the next shot attempt, Porter, an oral commit to Missouri, battled through a pack of five defenders and fended off 6-foot point guard Sophie Cunningham for a loose ball rebound similar to the one that Megan Foster ran down in last Thursday's game.

"Coach (Nagel) wants us to go for everything, (it) doesn't matter," said Porter after practice. "If we play together as a family, everything will work itself out."

And that's why Nagel was out of her chair in an instant last Thursday, showing frustration despite her team's 40-point lead in the late stages of another blowout win.

Seconds later, Nagel sat back down and clapped her hands together, flashing a brief smile.

Her team didn't give up another offensive rebound the rest of the way.


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