0127 Geneva coach Bixby

Geneva girls basketball coach Rich Bixby goes over instructions with Avery Nance during a practice session Wednesday at the high school.

GENEVA – The black and gold banners seize fans’ attention as they enter Geneva High School’s gym – proclaiming the exhilarating moments of a not-too-distant era.

Even though almost nine seasons have expired since the Lady Panthers reached the state tournament, a youthful group endeavors to supply the wall with another banner – and they may just have the chemistry and skills to do so.

With a core constructed with just one senior, two juniors and five sophomores, Geneva entered Thursday’s play with an 18-3 record. After downing Slocomb 53-33 Tuesday, the Panthers closed area play at 6-0 and extended their winning streak to 10 games.

In those games, Geneva has dominated – winning by an average of 28.8 points. Despite all of this, the Panthers have not earned a ranking this season.

“It’s all the better to me that teams in our county and in our region, they’re doubting us because we haven’t been there in a while,” said Kaylee Raines, Geneva’s lone senior. “They’re doubting us because of the type of season we had last year – and that’s just fuel to our fire. We want to be that team that says, ‘Geneva is back. Beware.’”

Panthers’ powerful past

Masterminding the surge is the coach that sustained a tremendous era of Geneva girls basketball – Rich Bixby.

After Geneva reached one Final Four under Sarah Kelley, Bixby piloted the Panthers back to the state tournament in Birmingham in 2005, 2006 and 2008. The latter team finished runner-up.

The Panthers continued to eviscerate opponents for the next four years – posting win totals of 19, 24, 28 and 21. The 2010-11 team that triumphed in 28 games fell a game short of another Final Four bid.

Bixby said a tough-nosed approach shaped his squads.

“You don’t buy into the team thing, you don’t play for me long,” he said. “It’s how bad you want it . We talk a lot about being mentally strong, and if you are not mentally strong, you can’t play for me. If you can’t handle the pressure, you’re going to fold your tent and sit on the bench or quit.

“I tell (officials), ‘I’m hard on the players, I’m hard on you, I’m hard on me. That’s who I am.”

Tough times trickle through

The Panthers program stagnated following the 2011-12 season. The 2012-13 squad went 10-12, and Bixby asked to coach middle school basketball as his mother battled – and eventually succumbed – to cancer during the 2013-14 season.

Bixby’s assistant, Brent Johnson, guided the Panthers to a 17-13 mark that year. Bixby expressed a desire to maintain the middle school job, but a staff opening with junior varsity baseball created an opportunity to rejoin the varsity girls basketball squad.

“I would have coached middle school and been happy with that,” Bixby said. “I was not a baseball coach. I would have done it, but coach Johnson is a baseball guy, so it just made sense to flip it back.”

But flipping back to championship-contending success did not come easily, despite Bixby feeling “rejuvenated” by the one-year break.

In Bixby’s first year back at the helm of the varsity squad (2014-15), the Panthers went 12-11.

Decisions made then, though, may have shaped the course of this year’s breakout season.

“The (current) sophomores, I moved them up my first year (back) in eighth grade. Some of the sophomores took some (playing) time away from the juniors and seniors,” he said. “They know if you’re not doing your job – I don’t care what grade you are – you’re going to get replaced. That keeps a little bit of energy going because they know I’ll pull the trigger and they’ll be sitting on the bench.”

The girls he coached in middle school gained valuable experience that season, which had moderate success. That fueled expectations for last season – which flopped with a disappointing 9-17 record.

A back injury to 5-foot-11 forward Avery Nance sidetracked the season and forced Bixby to move then-freshman guard Jesslyn Culverhouse to an inside position.

“Avery getting hurt just demoralized us,” he said. “She played the first five games, and we were 4-1. We had to change everything. She’s kind of what I call my enforcer. She’s so physical inside, offensively and defensively. You have to know where she’s at.”

Future flourishes forth

The girls under Bixby noticed the same talent he did and aimed to change the program’s direction, beginning last summer.

“I think what’s different about us is we all keep pushing and we keep expecting more from ourselves and more from each other,” said Nance, who is second on the team in scoring and first in rebounding. “Our coach expects excellence, and we don’t go through the motions. We give it our all: shooting free throws, running miles, doing drills . We don’t stop.”

Bixby also hired the LovHandlez group, founded by Aaron Allen and supported by former Troy standout Ashley Beverly Kelley, to instruct the girls on various skills.

“We hired them four or five times to come and do a team camp, and they worked on ball handling and worked with our post players,” the coach said. “They were hearing from somebody else who played. They were tired of me, and I understand that because I got tired of my coaches.

“They put them through the ringer. It was a two-hour session, and they barely got a water break. They didn’t cut them any slack, so that really helped. It was kind of a team-building thing, but it also helped develop some skills.”

The return of Nance also ignited confidence for the team’s potential, but the team’s chemistry perhaps provided the Panthers their strongest foundation entering the year.

“When practice started, we started saying, ‘This is what you have to do: you got to forget about you and think about us,’” Bixby said. “That has been the biggest thing we’ve talked about: put the team first. Winning will give you the personal accolades you deserve. They’re starting to understand that.”

Little time passed this season before sophomore Snow Dennard realized her teammates had fully embraced the concept that characterized Bixby’s best teams. Geneva’s first loss came in the second game, but it was against Class 6A Northview (ranked eighth now) in overtime.

“For me, (it was) when we were playing Northview in the Northview tournament, and we came back and went into overtime and lost,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wow. This is gonna be the season right here,’ because we hadn’t played like a team last year. Then we came into the Northview tournament and played like a team. It felt great.”

The Panthers rattled off five consecutive wins before suffering another loss – this time to Class 2A’s current No. 1 squad Geneva County. While the Bulldogs triumphed by a considerable margin, the Panthers remained in striking distance into the fourth quarter.

That contest encouraged players like Nance and Raines.

“We stuck with them the first half, and it was a hard fight into the third quarter,” Raines said. “The fourth quarter went downhill like people were expecting, but we were working hard and we were fighting for what we deserved to fight for.

“At that point, we were like, ‘Yes, this is the season we want. This is the team we want to be one day when we’re in Birmingham or Dothan (for the South Regional) someday.’”

Chasing championships

The Panthers, statistically, defeat teams in several areas .

The team averages 14.2 steals per game. The junior Nance (10.0 points, 9.7 rebounds) and sophomore Anslee Finch (11.2 points, 9.4 rebounds) average nearly a double-double per game.

Five different players – all underclassmen – tally at least 6.0 points per game (Finch, Nance, Culverhouse, Dennard and Meagan Lamb). Lamb dominates the middle with Finch and Nance, contributing 6.1 rebounds per game.

Despite this, Geneva remains unranked while the teams in the neighboring towns of Hartford (Geneva County) and Samson rank 1-2 in Class 2A and have been powerhouses for several seasons.

The Panthers say their team obtains success in a slightly different way than the Bulldogs and Tigers.

“You know what stands out about Samson: they have those twins (LaTascya and LaTora Duff), those two good, awesome players,” Nance said. “Hartford previously has been known for (Lacy Stafford), but what’s different about us is we’re not known for Avery. We’re not known for Snow and Kaylee.

“We are not just one person – we’re a whole team. We’re not one amazing athlete. We’re 10 good athletes who work our butts off.”

Bixby notes the balance makes his squad a dangerous one come playoff time.

“I’ve had a different leading scorer at least nine different times with different players,” he said. “The other night at Opp (Jan. 20), I had five score 10 or more. That has been a nice thing.”

Bixby, a history teacher, said the well-rounded squad reminds him of those which made deep runs in the playoffs.

“History is important to me because you can learn from the history of what’s happened to other teams,” he said. “Those teams didn’t care about their stats. They cared about winning. They’re starting to understand that. They get excited when they make a good pass or somebody does something good.”

While the Panthers endeavor to launch a deep playoff run, Bixby knows his squad needs to qualify first.

Winning the area and playing host to the area tournament will aid in that goal, but the end of the regular season could springboard the Panthers, too. Geneva battles perennial powers Samson (tonight), Daleville (Tuesday) and Geneva County (Feb. 3) to finish the schedule.

“The talk is about you have to win the game in front of you first,” Bixby said. “We’ve got a tough schedule from here out. That was done purposely. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. If you don’t want to play them, then you’re not gonna advance very far.”

And the Panthers must improve in one specific area to realize their playoff potential, especially after registering so many blowout victories, Bixby noted.

“Decision-making. If it’s so easy, it becomes a habit,” the coach said. “Then you get bad habits, and then when you play somebody good, those bad habits come out and it’s shown to everyone.

“We’ve been talking about doing the little things in practice every day. Don’t cut corners, because you’re gonna cut corners against a good team, and you’re gonna get beat.”

If Geneva eliminates those habits and reaches the South Regional in Dothan, Bixby believes his Panthers can achieve every objective they wanted for the season. For Dennard, that would include the addition of another brightly colored piece of cloth.

“We want that banner,” Dennard said. “(We say), ‘We’re gonna get you a banner, coach.’”

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