Several contenders possible for 5A-East girls' crown

Nettleton’s Diamond Kimble looks to shoot against Melbourne during the Northeast Arkansas Invitational Division II championship game last week. The Lady Raiders host Greene County Tech this evening to open 5A-East play.

JONESBORO — Two 5A-East conference teams played for the state championship in girls’ basketball last March, with a third reaching the state semifinals.

And, as Jonesboro coach Jodi Christenberry noted, regular-season conference champion Batesville wasn’t one of them.

“It would have been four out of four (in the 5A semifinals) and that’s what’s insane,” Christenberry said. “I knew our conference was really good last year. Just from talking to coaches in the other conferences, they said by far ours was the toughest, but I didn’t realize it was that much more.”

Jonesboro (6-5) hopes to build toward another postseason run after winning last year’s state title, but the Lady Hurricane has plenty of company in the 5A-East as conference play opens this evening.

West Memphis (7-3) and Nettleton (12-4) are ranked third and fourth, respectively, in Class 5A in this week’s Arkansas Sports Media poll. Jonesboro, Paragould (8-3) and Marion (10-5) are also receiving votes for the 5A rankings. Greene County Tech (9-3) is off to a strong start as well.

Nettleton coach Jason Smith said any of those teams could contend in the 5A-East.

“On a given night, I think anybody could beat anybody, but I really believe that there are six, maybe seven teams that have a real shot of making the state tournament,” Smith said. “I’ll say it with 100 percent belief that if all eight of our teams were in any of the other (5A) conferences, they would make the state tournament.”

Jonesboro, which features two Division I signees in point guard Ereauna Hardaway (North Texas) and center Destiny Thomas (Memphis), has played a difficult schedule. The Lady Hurricane defeated Little Rock Central, which is No. 7 overall, and also has a road victory over Benton.

Junior guard Bramyia Johnson leads Jonesboro in scoring at 13.3 points per game, followed by Thomas at 12.2 points per game and Hardaway at 11.3.

Hardaway scored 50 points in three games last week at the Sandra Meadows Classic in Duncanville, Texas. Jonesboro lost its opener in the tournament to Plano, Texas, then defeated Amarillo (Texas) Palo Duro before losing 46-40 to Marion, which went on to win the tournament’s consolation final.

“Our five losses have been really quality losses and my assistant has to keep reminding me of that because I just see them as ‘Ls,” said Christenberry, whose team hosts Batesville this evening. “I just have to keep reminding myself that we’re playing this schedule for a reason and hopefully it will pay off starting Friday.”

Senior guard Briley Pena, a Murray State signee, is averaging 21.2 points to lead Nettleton, which hosts GCT this evening.

The Lady Raiders have played a tough schedule as well with a loss to overall No. 3 North Little Rock and two losses to No. 5 Melbourne. Nettleton has beaten Lake Hamilton, Cabot and Marmaduke, among others.

Smith describes COVID-19 as “the elephant in the room” in regard to the 5A-East race.

“We had conversations (Tuesday), the athletic directors had conversations about what the policy for the league is going to be with COVID situations,” Smith said. “As it stands right now, if one team has health and safety protocols, it’s up to the two schools to make that game up. It would be a postpone and then you make it up because if you don’t make it up, then they ruled it is a double forfeit. That gives everyone an incentive to make games up.”

Paragould opens its conference schedule at Searcy. West Memphis, which is tied for 10th in the overall rankings this week, visits Marion in a battle of Crittenden County rivals.

Both Christenberry and Smith view West Memphis, last year’s state runner-up, and Marion as two of the favorites in the race.

“Most of the teams have most of their kids back. If you look at just this year, West Memphis and Marion have a great shot of winning the league,” Smith said. “I think Jonesboro has played a really tough schedule and Jodi’s teams always seem that, at the end of the year, they’re always right there. I think the defending state champs have a legitimate shot to repeat.

“You have teams like us, Paragould, who actually finished second in the league last year and their core is back, and Greene County Tech, who has everybody but one player back. That’s three teams that, I think, they could finish first through sixth in the conference. It’s going to be that interesting of a race. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”