December 17, 2009 9:26:00 AM
The 13th annual Joe Horne Columbus Christmas Invitational won''t be all about the boys.
Not only will the field include talented local teams from Columbus, East Oktibbeha, Noxubee County, and Starkville, but Raymond and Greenville-Weston also will add even more star power.
Raymond, which is ranked No. 1 in The Clarion Ledger''s Super 10, will face Columbus at 5:40 p.m. Friday. It then will take on Greenville-Weston, which is No. 2, are scheduled to play at 5:20 p.m. Saturday in the tail end of what figures to be a jam-packed holiday present of basketball.
Both teams, which were undefeated earlier in the week, feature several of the state''s top players. Seniors Valencia McFarland, who has signed with the University of Mississippi, and Janairrika Bland, who has signed with Southern Miss, lead Raymond, which won the Class 3A state title last season and moved up to Class 4A this season.
Senior guard Breanna Lewis, another Ole Miss signee, leads Greenville-Weston, which plays in Class 6A.
Raymond improved to 8-0 Friday with a 59-53 come-from-behind victory against Northwest Rankin. The Lady Rangers faced Mendenhall on Tuesday night and will take on Florence tonight before making the trip to Columbus.
The stretch is part of a busy pre-holiday slate that also features a game Dec. 21 against Murrah in the Ridgeland Classic in a rematch of last season''s Grand Slam finals.
Raymond coach Shay Jackson said she purposely packed the schedule to make sure her team is battle tested for what she hopes will be another run at a state title.
McFarland, a 5-foot-4 point guard, is the reigning Miss Basketball in the state of Mississippi. She is averaging 15 points, five rebounds, 2.4 steals, 4.6 assists, and one block per game. She is ranked as the No. 38 overall player in the nation by ESPNU HoopGurlz. Blue Star Basketball ranks her the No. 29 player in the nation.
McFarland was selected as the Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year and earned Miss Basketball honors in 2009 after averaging 19.3 points, seven rebounds, five assists, and 5.2 steals per game. She was also selected as an All-America honorable mention by The Sporting News.
Last season, she led the Lady Rangers to a 33-3 record and was named the tournament MVP for leading her team to the state title.
McFarland has a record of 98-13 in three years at Raymond and helped the team win three consecutive district championships.
"She has been leading the program since she was a freshman," Jackson said. "She is a program-changer. She is a true point guard who will as soon pass the ball as shoot it. She is a very unselfish player."
Bland, a 6-3 center, is averaged 15.4 points and 10 rebounds last season. She also averaged three blocks per game. She was named to the All-Metro team as a sophomore and junior.
"Janairrika is a force in the paint," Jackson said. "We have three other players (in the starting lineup) who complement them. I think we have a good solid five and about four off the bench who give us good sixth-man play."
Jackson said her team is more versatile than it was last year. She said she can go with as many as four guards at one time and play with an even number or an odd number of players in the post.
"This team has the potential to get back (to the "Big House" in Jackson) and win another state championship," Jackson said. "We''d like to win a Class 4A title. That is the first thing we said as a team goal, and Valencia and Janairrika both want to go out on that note."
Not to be outdone, Lewis, a 5-8 guard, is a two-time Clarion-Ledger Dandy Dozen pick. She was named to the Clarion-Ledger''s All-State team as a junior after averaging 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game and helping lead the Honey Bees to the Class 5A North State Tournament.
Last season, she scored 53 points against Indianola Gentry High School to help snap the Lady Rams'' MHSAA-record winning streak at 83. She was also selected as the Best Offensive Player in the Mississippi North-South All-star game last July.
"I would put her against anyone in the nation," Greenville-Weston coach Curtis Stovall said. "I have known her since she was 5 or 6 and I have seen her grow through the years. She has become more savvy on the court and as far as basketball IQ. When she started, she was a raw talent, but now she is pretty much a student of the game. She is growing as an individual on and off the court. I am proud of her for the steps she has taken."
Stovall said his team, which is 9-0 entering a game against Vicksburg on Friday, is "young and scrappy." He feels challenges like the one his team will face Saturday and the ones they will face next week at a three-day tournament at Humphrey County High will show it what it needs to work on for the tough district schedule.
"The kids are very coachable and we''re trying to have fun with what we''re doing," Stovall said. "I think barring any other unforeseen injuries or incidents we should be right there, especially in our district with good strong teams like Vicksburg, Warren Central, and Clinton."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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