The Madison-Ridgeland Academy’s varsity girls basketball team members are (Back L-R) Savannah McIntosh, Anna Cate Barlow, Kate Milam, Madeleine Blaylock, Rivers Futral (Front L-R) Mary Grace Morris, Mary Rogers Coon, Anna Kathryn McDaniel, Kathleene Pace, Maggie Simpson, and Sarah Turnipseed
The Madison-Ridgeland Academy’s varsity girls basketball team members are (Back L-R) Savannah McIntosh, Anna Cate Barlow, Kate Milam, Madeleine Blaylock, Rivers Futral (Front L-R) Mary Grace Morris, Mary Rogers Coon, Anna Kathryn McDaniel, Kathleene Pace, Maggie Simpson, and Sarah Turnipseed
MADISON – It’s not always easy being a preacher’s daughter.
   Just ask MRA sophomore guard Rivers Futral, whose father, Rob, is the lead pastor at Broadmoor Baptist.

“Even if I wanted to do something bad, I couldn’t get away with it,” she says, with a laugh. “It puts more pressure on me for sure. Everybody knows me everywhere I go. I’ve learned how to deal with it, though. I actually like it.”

While there may be some disadvantages of being a PK, there’s also plenty of advantages. One of those is the opportunity to go on mission trips. She’s been to Haiti four times, and she wouldn’t trade her experiences there for anything. While there, she visited numerous orphanages and took part in several service projects, including building a Church from the ground up.

“It’s something I really enjoy,” she says. “That’s one of the things my parents have showed me . . . having a servant’s heart. Each trip has been awesome in so many ways. One of those was watching the Church get bigger and bigger each time we went. Then, the last time I went, it was finished so we were able to worship with a congregation full of Haitians. It was a really neat experience.”

It doesn’t take very long into a conversation with Futral to figure out she’s mature beyond her years. That’s one reason longtime MRA girls basketball coach Stephen Force felt comfortable a year ago in handing her the keys to his team despite the fact she wasn’t old enough to drive herself. It also helps that she’s got considerable basketball skills, too.

Futral first flashed those skills two years ago as an 8th-grade starter on MRA’s junior high team, and she continued to do so a year ago as the starting point guard on the varsity team. Speaking of pressure, that’s a lot to put on a then-15-year old freshman. As expected, she experienced her fair share of growing pains playing against girls who, for the most part, were bigger and stronger and certainly more experienced. But at the same time, she excelled. So much so, that she was an All-MAIS selection at season’s end.

After an uneven start, Futral ended up averaging a team-high 10 points, 4 assists and 2.5 steals per game. She also averaged 4 rebounds per game. No question, she played a major role in MRA’s success. The Lady Patriots surprised many by compiling a 25-13 record and qualified for Overall in what many viewed as a rebuilding year of sorts before the season started.

Futral was at her best late in the season, averaging nearly 15 points per game over the course of MRA’s last 17 games. That stretch started with a breakout, 16-point showing in a come-from-behind road win at Magnolia Heights in mid-January, and ended with a can-you-believe-that 29-point, 6 assist, 4 rebound performance against East Rankin in the opening round of Overall at Mississippi College’s A.E. Wood Coliseum. The Lady Patriots lost that game in overtime, but the league’s newest, and youngest, star was introduced.

“That’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from a freshman in my life,” East Rankin assistant coach Grant Thompson said afterwards.

Said Magnolia Heights coach Robin Chastain: “I was really impressed with her. You can definitely tell a difference in the tempo of the game when she’s on the floor. She changes the speed of the game. She’s a competitor, too. She’s only got one speed, and that’s full speed. That’s one of the things I like about her. And she’s versatile. She does it all. You could probably ask her to play anywhere on the floor, and she could do it.”

Funny thing Chastain mentioned that. As it turns out, Futral will indeed be making a position change, of sorts, this season. Force plans on utilizing her more at the 2-spot, figuring she can help the team more at shooting guard than at the 1-spot. The emergence of A.K. McDaniel, a scrappy junior, at that position, has made the move plausible. When McDaniel is not on the floor, Rivers will be called upon to move back to point guard. Sophomore Mary Rogers Coon is also expected to see some playing time at that position.

“Last year was a learning experience for Rivers,” Force said. “She was inconsistent at times, but as tournament time approached she began to have a better understanding of what all we were trying to do. She really led the way down the stretch with some really good performances. This year she is much stronger and has a better understanding of the defensive side of the game. Moving her off the point to the wing will allow her to have the opportunity to shoot and drive which will hopefully lead to more scoring opportunities.”

While Force, who is entering his 16th season, expects big things from Futral in her second varsity season, he knows it will take solid contributions from all 11 girls on the roster to make MRA a highly-competitive squad once again. The Lady Patriots open the season on Monday against Park Place at 5:15 as part of the Canton Academy tournament. They play reigning Overall runner-up Kirk Academy on Wednesday, also in Canton. MRA will host its own tournament the following week.

“I believe if we can continue to develop defensively throughout the season, and we get consistent play at the point guard position from A.K. McDaniel we will have a chance down the stretch to really go far in the tournament,” said Force, who has 548 career wins and has led MRA to two Overall championships, two AAA state titles and five Division I state titles. “Every year my expectations are to compete for championships. If anything, they are higher this year.”

Allyson May, last year’s second-leading scorer, and Rachel Russell, last year’s leading-rebounder, were lost to graduation. That means there’s just one senior, Kathleene Pace, on this year’s team. Pace, the team’s best 3-point shooter, is expected to play alongside Futral and McDaniel in what will be a true three-guard lineup. Junior forward Kate Milam, who saw significant playing time a year ago, will team with junior Madeleine Blaylock in the frontcourt. While the Lady Patriots will be undersized inside, they should have the speed advantage on the interior on most nights as Milam and Blaylock both run the floor well.

Juniors Maggie Simpson and Mary Grace Morris and sophomore Sarah Turnipseed will be called upon to add depth in the backcourt. Meanwhile, junior Anna Cate Barlow and sophomore Savannah McIntosh should provide depth along the frontline.

“I’ve been very impressed with how Kathleene is working right now,” Force said. “She has embraced being the only senior, and she’s taking a leadership role by example as much as anything else. She’s working very hard every day at practice, which is probably the main thing you can ask for out of your senior leader. She has also worked a lot in the off-season on getting to the basket and not being so one-dimensional as far as shooting from the outside.

“Kate and Madeleine will have to step in and fill the void left from the two seniors that graduated last year,” Force continued. “The biggest void will come on the defensive end, I feel like that’s going to be our greatest challenge throughout the season, not only guarding the post but on the perimeter, as well. Offensively, I believe both Kate and Madeleine will continue to develop throughout the season and get better and better.”

MRA has won 153 games over the past five seasons to go along with six state championships, so a high standard has been set. Futral hopes to do her part in maintaining the Lady Patriots’ tradition of winning, regardless of what position she’s playing.

“We only have 11 girls, so we’ve been working hard to try to get in the best shape we can to try to make up for that,” she said. “Losing Allyson and Rachel hurts, but I think we still have a chance to be pretty good. I have a lot more confidence in myself than I did at this time last year, and I have a lot of confidence in my teammates.”

Futral was admittedly “intimidated” early on last season, and she was also overly conscious “of being a ball hog” in the eyes of her older teammates. It took time, and constant pushing from Force and assistant coach Pat Lovitt, for her to get past both of those issues. She did, eventually, and the team benefitted greatly as a result. She gained more and more confidence with each passing game, crescendoing with her eye-popping performance in the season-finale.

“That game was the most fun game for me last year,” she said. “I hate that we lost . . . it was a really good game, though. Personally, it validated what Coach Force and Coach Lovitt had been telling me all year, that even though I was young I had it in me to play like that. I gained a lot of confidence in that game, and that should carry over into this season.”

Whether the team wins or loses on any given night, or if she has a good game or a bad game, Futral has a wide-casting support system. That starts at home with her parents and her two brothers, Trea and Ridge. Trea played basketball at MRA, and Ridge is currently a junior at MRA. He plays football and runs track. She credits her two brothers for making her tougher.

“We used to play football, basketball, wall ball, all kinds of sports when I was younger,” she said. “I was really a little tomboy. I loved it.”

Said Ridge: “We didn’t take it easy on her at all. We treated her just like she was one of the boys pretty much. That’s why she’s tough.”

When she really needs someone to talk to, though, she usually turns to her mother, Kimandria, whether it be about basketball or life. She also jokingly credits her mom for her athletic ability. The two spend a lot of time together. They will occasionally shoot baskets, mixing in a game of H-O-R-S-E every now and again. They also ride horses together.

“I’m pretty much a momma’s girl,” she said, smiling. “We’re really close. She played basketball back in the day, and she was a really good player, so she knows what she’s talking about. I can always count on her for good advice.”

So, who wins the games of H-O-R-S-E? “I’d have to say she wins most of the time, she’s a better shooter,” Rivers said, again smiling.

Futral is working on that part of her game, often arriving to school early and putting up shots on the shoot-a-way. Playing at the 2, she knows she will be called upon to shoot, and make, more outside jump shots. She says the transition from the 1 to the 2 hasn’t been a hard one, although it has been a bit of an adjustment.

“I’ve always liked playing the 1 better, but I think I may end up liking playing the 2 better,” she said. “I probably won’t be tired as much because I won’t be the one bringing the ball up the court and starting all the plays, and I’ll probably have more opportunities to score. Hopefully it will work out for the best.”

While Futral begins the season feeling better about her game overall, she also feels better period. That was not the case a year ago as she battled fatigue. Although some people pointed to her busy schedule and increased responsibilities on the basketball court as a reason for her always being tired, she knew all along something wasn’t quite right. Turns out, she was right. Medical tests revealed she had a lower-than-normal ferritin level, indicating she had an iron deficiency.

She has had two iron infusions in recent months, and she says she feels much better as a result. She’s also taking iron pills.

“I feel so much better now,” she said. “I have a lot more energy. I’m really looking forward to the season getting started.”