By Jamie Wachter / Sports Editor
The Meridian Star
If anybody knows the road to Jackson, it'd be Joe Miller.
The legendary Southeast Lauderdale girls basketball coach has led his Tigers to Jackson — and the state tournament — eight out of the past nine seasons. Sometimes, that trip was expected – Southeast won more than 30 games in each of the first six years of that streak including two state championships. Others it was a little more surprising as the Tigers rebounded from a losing season in 2009-10 with a state tournament berth in 2010-11 riding senior stars Pashen Thompson and Rachel Adams. Southeast then promptly returned to the Big House — Mississippi Coliseum — last season without those two.
So on the heels of those two straight trips with four starters back and the addition of center Crystal Clay from Clarkdale, Miller and Southeast has a familiar goal for 2012-13: end the year at the home away from home.
“Well you know we've been there eight of the last nine years and we feel like we have a good chance to make it nine out of 10,” he said. “We've got to stay away from injuries and work hard.
“We have to improve a lot. We've got a lot of potential, but like I told them you can't win on just potential and talent, you've got to work hard and get some breaks. I feel good about our chances but there will be a lot of tough games along the way.”
But the road to Jackson isn't smooth and Miller expects some obstacles to crop up, starting with Division 5-3A rival and also perennial power Choctaw Central. The Warriors have made three straight state tournaments and return a host of talent as well. Newton, another state power, also resides in the district, and there are always potential stumbling blocks throughout the state playoffs.
“Of course Choctaw will be good again,” Miller added. “They've got some excellent players and it'll be another tough fight for us and them, I'm sure.”
Still, Southeast seems to have the necessary tools to avoid the pitfalls. And that starts with the return of guards Denisha Knight, Tay Ruffin and Kamesha Pringle. The three seniors combined to average 25.5 points per game last year as Southeast went 24-9. In a state semifinal loss to eventual champion Ripley two years ago, Southeast coughed up a big lead late with turnovers and missed free throws. That experience, though, along with leading Southeast back to that stage a year ago, has Miller confident in his experienced ballhandlers.
“I feel like our guards are fast and much better ball handling than in the past,” he said. “When I look that, those were young guards and those same guards are going to be seniors now and that experience from two years ago and from last year that our guard play is going to be much improved.”
Added to that experience in the backcourt, Southeast is also experienced and talented in the frontcourt. Jasmine Bush, who developed into a solid scoring option as a sophomore in 2010-11, became the Tigers' top threat a year ago averaging 17.2 points. Now, she will share that load down low with Clay, who starred for Clarkdale the past three seasons. The 6-foot-3 senior averaged 17 points, 14.4 rebounds and 3.3 blocks last season in leading the Bulldogs to their best season ever.
Her addition makes Southeast formidable.
“We're very fortunate she moved in and she'll slide right into that one open spot we had,” Miller said. “We feel like we're going to be a good ball team.
“Our main strength should be inside with Crystal and Jasmine. I haven't seen everybody play but I really doubt there's two stronger post players on the same team in the state.”
Even with all those puzzle pieces meshing together, Miller isn't predicting a return to the Big House just yet. And he also isn't sharing any secret directions on how to get there. But he does know one thing that seems to help the Tigers: they expect to get there every single season.
“I think about that sometimes and I don't know that there is any secret,” he said. “We've had a lot of talent over the years and the kids have worked hard and they expect to be there.
“You have to give them the credit.”