MAGAZINE: Out of the Shadows

From The Bark magazine, Winter 2011 The Lady Bulldogs are off to a solid start to the season with a little help from some boys. Christian Peake, Anthony Georgiafandis, and Bradley Matthews were recruited by head basketball coach Justin Underwood back in June in order to toughen up his girls. “(Coach Underwood) said he could use some help from some guys to get the girls more pre­pared for the season,” Georgiafandis says. Since then, the three seniors, along with fresh­man basketball coach Chris Foster, have been attending Lady Bulldog practices and helping the girls develop. “It makes us tougher,” se­nior forward Cozette Gas­pard says. “Going against your teammates, you are not going as hard and you are not challenged.” While physicality may be the main reason Coach Underwood recruited the guys, their speed plays a huge role too. “Guys are able to make cuts and get to the ball faster,” Coach Underwood says. “All around, offense and defense, they are prob­ably half a step quicker.” As the girls try to adjust to playing against the tough, quick senior boys, they also must face the realization that they aren’t tall. Peake is. “You have to be tougher, especially going against Christian be­cause he is like 8-feet tall,” Gaspard says. The three senior boys are taller, faster, and tougher in com­parison to the girls the Lady Bulldogs usually get to practice against. In one sense, though, they were brought in because they are not as “in-the-know” as the Lady Bulldog practice team is. “Whenever they’re playing against us, it’s not like we’re going to cheat their plays because we don’t know them,” Georgia­fandis says. For the same reason that scrimmages have always been popular among coaches of all sports, these three willing ball players were brought in. Many Knoxville sports fans are used to this ben­eficial tactic. Coach Pat Summitt has been using it since she was hired at Tennessee in 1974. Of the hundreds of college males who have joined in the tradition to help the Lady Vols, Coach Underwood is one of them. “An opportunity to learn from Coach Summitt and her basketball knowledge and experience was invalu­able,” Coach Underwood says. From 2000-2004, Coach Underwood was part of teams that made the Sweet Sixteen all four years, the Final Four three years, and the national title game twice. “We really were a group on and off the floor,” Coach Underwood says. “We had a unique bond.” Coach Underwood is glad that these Bearden seniors get to take part in this unique experience. “Being a part of a team is a very rewarding oppor­tunity, and this just gives a different view point,” Coach Underwood says. “The fact is that the more successful we are on the floor, where the fans are able to wit­ness, is a direct reflection of how hard these guys are pushing us in practice.” With Coach Underwood in his first season as head coach of the Lady Bulldogs, the time had come for Bearden’s squad to convert to this time tested method of practice. “This year, we want to get better and we have higher aspirations,” se­nior point guard Jai-Jai McLaughlin says. “We need that extra push to get us to where we want to be.” This “extra push” is some­thing that Coach Under­wood thinks will help his star guard especially, as she is forced to compete against much younger tal­ent in practice where the boys are not present. “It’s an excellent chal­lenge for someone like Jai Jai to try to find another way to motivate her and help develop her game,” Coach Underwood says. When the starters are developing against the boys, they are also having a bit more fun doing it. “It changes up practice some,” Gaspard says. “Prac­tice kind of drags on when they’re not there.” And while they may be more fun than the tradi­tional practice, they are just as serious in every way, accord­ing to all involved. “It’s definitely serious because we realize we’re there to help,” Peake says. “The practice plan doesn’t change. Who they’re play­ing against chang­es.” If the focus changes, according to Coach Under­wood, it changes for the better. The girls are forced to focus and be precise, as they are playing against a squad with more talent. And while the boys’ abili­ties may exceed those of the practice squad girls, the guys never cease to be amazed at what the girls can do on the court. “Yeah, all the time,” Geor­giafandis says. “They’re really good and they’re going to have a really good season.” “Who knows? Maybe they’ll win state.” Jacob Steimer is the sports editor for The Bark. Follow The Bark on Twitter @BeardenBARK and like The Bark (Bearden High School) on Facebook.