Blackman takes over in title town
Located in the middle of the Volunteer State, Murfreesboro, Tenn., has recently become the center of the girls' basketball world.
For the second season in a row, the espnW national champions reside in the fast-growing city of 100,000-plus that sits 35 miles southeast of Nashville.
And Blackman, which finished 34-1 to claim the final No. 1 ranking a year after Riverdale claimed the top spot, may just put down roots at the top of the espnW 25 Power Rankings.
"The competition in Murfreesboro is big," said MeMe Jackson, a 5-foot-11 junior guard for Blackman who has committed to Tennessee. "Every school out here is tough."
Blackman's rivalry with Riverdale is especially intense. Blackman, which was No. 3 in the Week 1 rankings, beat Riverdale, ranked 15th at the start of the season, all three times they played this past season -- a 47-46 home win on Jan. 10, a 58-49 road victory on Jan. 31 and an 82-66 playoff win on a neutral court Feb. 24.
"Every time we played them, we'd get 1,500 to 2,000 fans," said Alex Johnson, a 6-foot junior forward who has offers from Ole Miss and Middle Tennessee State, among others. "Our Riverdale games got more fans than our boys' team did."
But the rivalry also is respectful, in part because many of the top players from both schools are teammates on Tennessee Flight, a club team that won AAU national titles in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012.
That's why neither Jackson nor Johnson would argue with the fact that even though Blackman is the No. 1 team in the nation, the state's No. 1 player wears a different uniform. Riverdale guard Alexa Middleton, a Tennessee signee, earned the Miss Tennessee Basketball award for Class 3A.
"I was proud of Alexa for winning," Jackson said of Middleton, a 5-8 McDonald's All American guard. "I know how hard she works, because we played together in the summer.
"Hopefully someone on our team will get it next year."
A prime candidate for that Miss Tennessee award would be Crystal Dangerfield, Blackman's 5-5 sophomore point guard.
Dangerfield, who struck gold with Team USA last summer at the 2013 FIBA Americas U16 championships, led Blackman in scoring (14.5), assists (3.6) and jaw-dropping moves this season.
Johnson said Dangerfield's shooting and passing skills can be downright mesmerizing.
"Crystal makes some ridiculous shots that make you go, 'Wow,' " Johnson said. "She made a half-court shot in a game this season, but I guess it's not that ridiculous because we practice those on 'Trick Shot Mondays.'
"She also makes passes that other point guards wouldn't even try -- behind-the-back, no-look. You have to be ready."
Dangerfield, blessed with elite speed, set a single-season school record for points as a freshman and broke her own mark as a sophomore.
An intense competitor who has yet to pick a college, Dangerfield is ranked No. 7 in the nation in the 2016 class rankings.
But as good as Dangerfield is, Blackman had never won a state title in girls' basketball until Jackson became eligible for the 2013-14 season.
After transferring from Mount Juliet (Tenn.), Jackson had to sit out last season. But rather than pout, she showed her leadership abilities.
"She was invested and engaged during our practices and games," said Chad Hibdon, who just finished his ninth season as Blackman's coach. "Hearing her voice from the sideline really motivated her teammates."
Johnson said the team was thrilled when Jackson was finally eligible.
"We wanted to play with her so bad last year," Johnson said. "Sitting on the bench the whole year was hard for someone who loves the game as much as MeMe."
Jackson, who averaged 9.4 points this season, said she used last season as a learning experience, sitting next to coaches during games and listening to the constructive criticisms they had for each player.
During practices, she would play defense almost exclusively, giving her teammates fits and also making them better.
"MeMe is a big-time player," Hibdon said. "Whenever you needed a defensive stop or a big basket or rebound, she'd get it."
Future is bright
The good news for Blackman is that four starters will return next season, including the backcourt of Dangerfield and Jackson.
Inside, Blackman will return Johnson and 6-3 sophomore Jazz Bond. Johnson averaged 12.2 points and led the team in rebounds (6.3) and blocks (1.6). Bond, who also has offers from top colleges, averaged 7.5 points and 4.8 rebounds.
"Alex [Johnson] was dominant around the rim," Hibdon said. "Not many teams had an answer for her.
"Jazz is a shot-blocker who can shoot well from the high post and the short corner. She challenges so many shots with her length." The only senior on the team was 5-10 guard Micah Norris, who has signed with Southern Illinois.
Hibdon said Norris was his defensive stopper, capable of guarding every position except center.
"She disrupted so many things with her defense," Hibdon said. "She understands that her greatness is on defense. We told her to be great at what she is great at and then work to be solid in the areas where you need to improve."
Blackman's top reserves this past season were 5-6 junior guard Angel Allen, 5-10 junior guard KK Williams and 5-11 sophomore post Mia Greatrex.
Tough road ahead
Hibdon, though, said no one on the team has a guaranteed spot for next season. Every position will have to be fought for as the team attempts to hold on to local and national dominance.
The schedule will surely be tough, just as it was this past season, when Blackman beat national and regional powers such as McEachern (Powder Springs, Ga.), Ribault (Jacksonville, Fla.), Myers Park (Charlotte, N.C.) and Incarnate Word (St. Louis).
It was the 58-49 victory over Incarnate Word -- which had a 47-game winning streak entering the game -- that proved crucial in the final analysis of Blackman's No. 1 rating.
Incarnate Word was ranked No. 1 at the time and had beaten Blackman 53-44 in Naples, Fla., on Jan. 1.
Twenty-four days later, this time in Louisville, Ky., Blackman avenged its only defeat.
"In that game at Naples, we weren't disciplined on defense, and we fell behind by 13 points in the first quarter," Hibdon said. "They had a bunch of seniors, and we only had one -- that played a role.
"But it was a blessing in disguise. We knew they were on our schedule again in Louisville. And as soon as our girls got off the bus [for the rematch], I knew they had studied their scouting reports and were locked in."
Johnson said the No. 1 national ranking was never a goal for her team -- winning state was the focus.
"But as we continued to get better, we took pride in our ranking," she said. "And, next year, we plan on getting it again."