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Focused and driven
As defending 5A champions, Brewer girls eager for challenges
By Justin Graves for TNValleyNow.com
Brennen Smith/TNValleyNow.com
The Brewer girls basketball team refuses to let last year’s success distract it from this year’s goal of repeating as 5A champions.

FLORETTE — Positioned at the goal closest to the main entrance, Rheagan Harvel spent a few moments before practice perfecting her shot.

The Brewer High point guard wasn’t alone, either.

Scattered throughout Brewer’s gymnasium Friday afternoon, everyone on the Patriots’ roster was doing the same.

There was no laughing. No goofing off. No time wasted.

And no coaches were watching to make sure the players made the most of their time.

Obviously for Brewer, maintaining focus is not an issue.

“The push and drive with this group really is remarkable,” Brewer coach Ricky Allen said. “It’s kind of an odd group with that you don’t have to talk about focus, because they’re focused every day.”

They have the mental makeup of a state title contender.

Despite graduating three players from last season’s Class 5A state championship team, Brewer once again enters the postseason tournaments labeled as a contender. The top-ranked Patriots (30-1) travel to Jacksonville State on Tuesday morning to play No. 2 Center Point in the Northeast Regional semifinals. Tipoff is scheduled for 9.

Brewer has been a perennial postseason team for most of Allen’s career, but this season, the Patriots’ identity has changed. The underdog label is gone — replaced by a wide target that has all the top team’s aim.

Not that the players mind.

“Our team responds well to pressure,” junior center Riley Northway said. “We kind of like this new role — like we have something to prove. There’s a quote that my mom (Pam Northway) pulled out the other day that says, ‘No one rises to low expectations.’ That describes our team. We play better when we have high expectations.”

For this Brewer team, learning to handle raised expectations dates back to March — just weeks removed from the program’s first state title.

According to Allen, the 2011-12 team enjoyed multiple championship celebrations at the school and in the community, but by the end of March, the trophy had been stowed away and the state title was moved into the past.

“We were back in the weight room working for the next season,” Allen said. “The championship was ancient history — accomplished by last year’s team. The remaining players took ownership of this season and took on the challenges of accomplishing a new set of goals.”

Northway agreed.

“It didn’t take long for us to put last year’s accomplishments behind us,” she said. “We weren’t going to let that be a distraction. That was made very clear. And everyone came into the season with the same attitude, that we weren’t going to worry about titles or anything that happened in the past. The only thing that we’ve ever been focused on is this team and what we need to do for us to be successful.”

Allen is correct when he says this is a different Brewer team. Three former reserves — Savana Flack, Malerie Drinkard and Cheyenne McLemore — are now in the starting lineup, but the blueprint for success remains the same:

Pressure the ball on defense, create 3-pointers with dribble-drive penetration, feed the ball to a dominant post player, and win games by being consistently good at the foul line.

Following the Brewer philosophy hasn’t been an issue.

Northway, who is proving to be a Division I prospect, has been dominant. The 6-foot center is averaging a double-double at 19.4 points and 12.1 rebounds per game.

And the surrounding cast? They’ve also been consistently good.

Harvel enters the regional averaging 9.1 points and 4.6 points per game, and the Patriots have four other players who average more than five points per game: Flack (7.6), Drinkard (6.8), McLemore (6.6) and Emily Oden (5.1).

“The new players, they were prepared,” Allen said. “Something we talk about is that if you’re going to be a good leader, you better be a good follower, and these players did that. Everyone has gotten better, and right now, our confidence is really good.

“All of our players, they believe they’re supposed to do well. When one person isn’t having a good game, someone is there to pick them up. It’s a good group.”

Brewer, which is making its eighth-straight regional appearance, has advanced to the Class 5A state semifinals three times in the past four seasons, but the Patriots road to Birmingham is arguably tougher.

Brewer and Center Point have been ranked No. 1 and 2 by the Alabama Sports Writers Association for most of the season, and the Eagles have two Division I signees on their roster. Keonna Farmer, a 6-foot-1 post player, signed with Auburn, while Gabrielle Holston, a 6-1 post player, signed with Georgia Tech.

Northway said the Patriots are excited about the challenge.

“To be the best, you’ve got beat the best,” she said. “You’re going to have to play the tough teams at some point, so this just means that we have to rise up early and take on the challenge.

“We’re all excited and ready to play. These tournaments, we’ve been preparing for this moment since the end of last season.”

Contact Justin Graves at 256-340-2460 or by email at jgraves@decaturdaily.com.

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