RUTLEDGE — Last year was supposed to have been a rebuilding year for the Grainger Lady Grizzlies, but they did what they always seems to do: just reload.

Rusty Bishop became the head coach of the ultra-successful Lady Grizzlies basketball program and led a very young squad back to the state tournament, a place they have been very familiar with over the past several years. With the nucleus of last year’s 30-win squad back for another round, the Lady Grizzlies will once again be favored to be playing in Murfreesboro come March.

“The expectations for us are high,” Bishop said of the 2019-20 Grainger squad. “Last year was last year and they don’t just automatically put you in the district finals or the region finals or the state tournament based on last year’s results. This team has to earn those kinds of opportunities just like last year’s team. We have done a pretty good job during the summer and have worked hard this Fall. Hopefully this team will reap the benefits from that.”

Bishop has been accustomed to excellence as the head coach of the Grainger softball team but said there was a learning curve when he took over the whistle for the girls’ hoops team. “I had to relearn the game and all the nuances of the game. I had to spend a lot of time in videos and books and talking to other coaches to get myself up to speed.

“So luckily, my focus this pre-season has been in other places. I still have a lot to learn but luckily for me, good players always make good coaches. We are blessed to be a very talented team.”

Blessed indeed, as the Lady Grizzlies return four seniors this year in Rikelle Bowlin, Josie Harbin, Abbey Hodge and McKenzie Stratton. “All four of our seniors are great kids and they will all contribute this year. All of them will play the four and five positions for us and the great thing about those girls is they are all hard-nosed and great on the defensive end of the floor. We will need some points out of that group,” the Grainger head coach said of his fourth-year players.

Bishop said he is expecting big things from Hodge, who played through the lingering effects of a knee injury suffered the year before. “Probably at no point last year was Abbey at 100 percent since she was only a year removed from her ACL surgery. She was just a different kid this summer and I expect big things from her. We get a different Abbey this year since she was playing about 65 to 70 percent last season due to injury.”

A loaded junior class includes Lauren Longmire, Tori Rutherford, Matty Tanner and Kolbi Walker and Bishop said they saw a lot of action last season that will make them better players for the 2019-20 campaign.

“Our juniors are a very talented group. They had a great season as sophomores last year. With the motor Tori has, she makes us go offensively. She doesn’t always have to score all the time, however, as she can distribute the ball. Matty was the person who, last year, always guarded the other team’s best player. She can shut down the other team’s best player on one end and then score 20 points on our end. Lauren figured out mid-season last year just how good she was and Kolbi has battle injuries in the pre-season so we hope to get her back soon. This class is a stout class.”

Freshmen don’t always have a lot of opportunities to see the floor but that wasn’t the case with three newcomers last year who return for their sophomore seasons now. “We played three of this year’s sophomores pretty consistently last year in Alia Maloney, Audrey Stratton and Sydnie Hayes. Those three would start for a lot of the teams we play because they are that talented.” Completing the sophomore class are Millie Hurst, Gracie Jarnigan, Jada Owen and Morgan Sykes. First year additions for the Lady Grizzlies include freshmen Suzanne Barker, Lydia Foster, Kayla Scott, Alyvia Sneed and Marly Tanner.

Coach Bishop said he isn’t afraid to put together a heavy schedule and that is what his team will face this season. “The schedule is pretty tough early as we play Cosby twice in the first four games, Farragut and Meigs County. The Kings Academy is in our Thanksgiving Classic and then after that, we travel to Gatlinburg-Pittman who was a game away from the state tournament. We are stacked pretty early but this team needs to be tested. We will find out how good we will be early but in this sport, it’s not about how you start but how you finish so hopefully playing a tough schedule early will get us ready for our conference.”

Grainger’s season begins on Nov, 21 when they take on Cosby in the Hall of Fame game at 6 p.m.