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Natchez High interim coach, Lady Bulldogs set sights on playoff game

For most of this season, the Natchez High School girls basketball team has sputtered, perhaps not living up to it’s own expectations.

But over the past several weeks, the Lady Bulldogs (9-15) have performed at a peak level they’ve come accustomed to in recent years.

Natchez notched its lone regular season win in region play on Feb. 3 after knocking off Wingfield, and then parlayed the effort into a Region 6-5A tournament championship last week.

NHS will attempt to keep the momentum going Friday night when it plays host to South Jones in the second round of the MHSAA Class 5A playoffs.

“They played very well,” Natchez interim coach Willie Woods said of the tournament. “I reckon they didn’t want to go home.”

Woods took over as interim coach Jan. 31 after head coach Tim Richardson was forced to miss the remainder of the season for undisclosed health reasons.

The 75-year-old Woods is a grizzled coach in the Natchez system, having previously served as the girls junior high basketball head coach for more than a decade, where he coached Lady Bulldog seniors Asia Carradine, Destiny Lyles and Kirdis Clark.

“Those girls that I coached in junior high know how I am,” Woods said. “Work hard and give it your best, and however it comes out in the game, I’m satisfied.”

Woods had been retired from coaching for the past four years before answering the call from Natchez High.

He has guided Natchez to a 4-1 record in his interim stint, and Lyles said his familiarity to the players in the program has played a pivotal part in the turnaround.

“He kind of brought us back together,” Lyles said. “Like you’re reunited with your family. He just brought that back.”

Natchez beat Region 6-5A No. 1 seed Brookhaven before outlasting tournament host Provine, 56-51, to claim top honors in last week’s tournament.

“I felt like other teams underestimated us because of how our record looked during the season,” Lyles said. “But this is the time that really matters.”

Woods credited assistants Jessica Fiveash and Cleveland Watts as playing critical roles in the resurgence.

“We’ve got a lot of talent,” Woods said. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve been doing a lot of conditioning and agility drills.”

South Jones enters Friday’s contest after having knocked off Picayune 52-46. Natchez, meanwhile, advanced after receiving a first round bye.

NHS and South Jones remain familiar foes, having faced off three times in the past three postseasons. Natchez beat South Jones in 2014 in the South State and State Championship games, but the Lady Braves got the best of the Lady Bulldogs in the opening round of the playoffs last year, 62-59.

“All I can say is we’re ready,” Lyles said. “We’re real eager to play them. We’ve been working hard, and we know we can get there.”

Perhaps a pivotal aide to the Lady Bulldogs’ renewed energy has been the return of Clark. The standout guard missed approximately a month of the regular season with an injury before returning Jan. 31.

“Kirdis is another coach on the floor; she knows the game,” Woods said. “She learned it at a young age, and she probably picked it up from her mother (Katrenia McNeal, a 1993 NHS girls basketball state champion).”

Game time for Friday is set for 7 p.m. at Mary Jean Irving Memorial Gymnasium.

“They’re getting the grip now,” Woods said. “Anything worth having you’ve got to work for; it’s hard.”