North Forsyth girls basketball coach Eric Herrick walked into a practice two days after the Lady Raiders’ 49-34 win against Johns Creek on Jan. 9 sulking. His dejection was palpable, and perhaps understandable. The Lady Raiders, after all, had suffered the second major injury to a starter this season against Johns Creek when sophomore Haley Simpson tore her ACL, a run of misfortune seemingly so rare in Herrick’s five-year tenure.
North forward Maddie Palmer her coach’s dejection. She’d been out since Dec. 11 with a season-ending injury. Who better to deliver the message Herrick needed to hear.
“Coach, she’s not dead,” Palmer said.
“That kind of opened my eyes that we have a lot of kids here that can make plays and work hard,” Herrick said. “We still have a chance with this season.”
North has more than a chance. The Lady Raiders (14-7, 10-5) are comfortably in third place in Region 6-AAAAAA after a 55-33 thrashing of Centennial this past Thursday and have looked the part of a state tournament team as the regular season winds down toward the region tournament. They’ve done this despite replacing four starters, including two of the program’s most decorated players, and then losing Palmer and Simpson for the season.
North had been almost immune to such calamity since Herrick took charge in 2011. Like a wiz computer programmer, Herrick inserted his code and out came arguably the most consistent girls basketball program in the county. Behind college-level talent in Caroline Bowns (Campbell), Lochlain Corliss (North Georgia) and Avery Scarbrough (Emmanuel), North won a region title in 2014, made the state tournament four straight seasons and reached the state quarterfinals for the first time in program history.
Bowns, Corliss and senior starters Okwunne Ogbogu and Sydney Pefanis graduated from last season’s team that went 25-5 and reached the second round of the state tournament, and so North seemed to be starting over. With senior Morgan Grindle the lone returning starter, the Lady Raiders were going to have to rely on a group of sophomores in Bella Caracciolo, Cassie Markle, Amber Jones, Kate Ware and Simpson and juniors Sydney Bartlett, Madison Moye and Palmer to find a significant role.
“Definitely a lot more pressure,” Caracciolo said. “Last year, we kind of sat back and waited for [the starters] to get a 20-point lead. We’d come in and do whatever. It wasn’t that big if we made a mistake. We had to adjust with all that pressure on us.”
Herrick structured the team’s summer as such. Summers past were spent playing some of the state’s top competition. Not this time.
“We really didn’t need that,” Herrick said. “We needed some confidence. … We needed to have some success, and we needed these kids to believe in themselves.”
“We came into summer and we really worked,” Grindle said. “We really got down to business. Things changed.”
Indeed, the Lady Raiders had to adjust to life without Bowns and Corliss. The two had made some things so easy for Herrick and North. Need some offense? Set a screen and let them use it for a three or a drive to the basket. Herrick knew this team would need to be far more precise and well-rounded.
That started with Grindle, the point guard who leads the team in scoring (12 points a game) and assists (3.8APG). Outside shooting would come from Grindle and Jones, who has made 75 threes on 39 percent shooting this season. Simpson would be the slashing guard, Palmer the post presence, Caracciolo the scrappy defender.
The adjustment looked shaky early on. After a 2-0 start, North lost five straight, including three in a row in the region. The Lady Raiders didn’t win their own Raider Classic tournament around Thanksgiving for the first time in three seasons.
But gradually things have come together for North. Since the 2-5 start, the Lady Raiders are 12-2 since, winning six straight at one point, including the championship in their bracket of the Carolina Invitational in Charleston, South Carolina, even after Palmer’s injury.
And when Simpson went down with her injury that night against Johns Creek – when it felt like nothing else could go wrong for the Lady Raiders – they responded with a 56-50 road victory against Lambert.
“That was huge,” Grindle said, “to show us we can do it without [Palmer and Simpson].”
To make up for the 10.9 points and 9.5 rebounds a game missing between Palmer and Simpson, the Lady Raiders have received bigger contributions in the paint from Markle (5.4PPG, 6.6RPG), a transfer from Horizon Christian, and Moye (3.2PPG, 4.3RPG). They’ve gotten an extra dose of defense from Ware, sharp leadership from Bartlett and a spark of scoring off the bench from senior Kelsey Johnson who has started to round into form coming off an ACL injury last season.
“Whatever role we ask them to do it’s never a question,” Herrick said. “The kids are willing to do what it takes to win.”
Should the Lady Raiders keep winning and make the state tournament again, they’d tie the county record for most consecutive appearances by a girls basketball team with five set by old Cumming (1950-54) and Forsyth County (1958-62) high schools.
It’d be a remarkable feat for North to accomplish considering the roster turnover and heartbreaking injuries suffered in a season that has tested the program’s stability and players’ resiliency unlike any other during Herrick’s tenure.
“It’s definitely been a lot different,” Grindle said. “We’ve had to work a lot harder and rely a lot more on our team aspect than one individual. We’ve really come together.”