Class 6A blog: Gayle, deep roster lifting No. 1 River Ridge girls to new heights

ajc.com

The River Ridge girls basketball program has had its share of success since the school opened in 2009, making regular playoff appearances, winning a few of those games along the way, even reaching the state quarterfinals in 2013.

Over the past year and half, however, the Knights have turned it up a notch.

Coming off a 2020-21 season in which River Ridge finished 27-4 and advanced to the semifinals before losing to four-time state champion Westlake, the Knights this week ascended to No. 1 in the AJC’s Class 6A rankings for the first time. They are 17-1 overall and sit in first place in Region 7-6A with an 8-0 record. Their only loss this season came against Class 7A No. 3 North Forsyth, 63-58 on Dec. 11.

“It’s hard not to pay attention to it,” River Ridge coach Jason Taylor said of the rankings, “but we’re still treating it one game at a time. We just look ahead at the next one, and then we’ll look at the next one. It’s just a one-game-at-a-time mentality. These kids truly love playing with each other. They enjoy each other on the court and off the court. It’s just a fun group to be around and a fun group to coach.”

The Knights are led by Mataya Gayle, a 5-foot-7 junior guard who was a second-team all-state selection last season. Gayle is averaging a team-best 17.5 points, 5.7 assists and 3.9 steals and contributes 4.0 rebounds per game.

“We feed off Mataya and how she plays,” Taylor said. “Mataya’s the kind of kid that can come down the court every single play and probably create her own shot, either using a screen or a dribble-handoff. She can create her own shot, which means everybody’s got to play her really honest, and if you’re helping off of other kids to try to slow her down, she is more than a willing passer. She would rather get an assist than score a basket. When you’ve got kids that are shooting the ball like Sophia Pearl is shooting it or Kayla Cleaveland’s shooting it or Simone Goins is shooting it, that just makes us really hard to defend.”

According to Taylor, Gayle has received a scholarship offer from Georgia State and is getting interest from several mid-major programs. He attributes the lack of big-name interest to his guard’s height.

“If she was 5-10, I think every school in the country would come knocking,” he said. “She’s that skilled and that good. I truly believe, especially for the 2023 class, that she’s the best guard in the state of Georgia. The biggest difference between her and the other top players that are getting the big offers is about 3 inches. It’s not the skill, it’s the size. I think if somebody’d just give her an opportunity, they’d be pleasantly surprised. She’s got the skills, the heart, the strength to compete with the kids that are bigger.”

Pearl, a 5-6 freshman guard, is averaging 16.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.9 steals. In a 77-30 victory over Centennial last week, she was 8-for-15 on 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 31 points. Sophomore forward Allie Sweet averages 8.9 points and 9.5 rebounds, and freshman guard/forward Cleaveland adds 8.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.

Goins, Sofia Reyes and Sarah Fraser are the only seniors on the team’s 14-player roster.

“We’re really deep,” Taylor said. “In years past, we’ve had good players, but when you go to the bench you lose productivity or you lose defense or you lose some little aspect because the kids you were bringing in off the bench weren’t able to keep up. This year we’re about 10 deep. We’ve got three post players that probably all deserve to be on the floor equally. And we have about six or seven guards that can just rotate through. You just don’t lose the productivity. Where we’ve been less productive in subbing is years past, we’re getting stuff out of everybody.”

River Ridge will be tested this week with games against eighth-ranked Sequoyah (Thursday) and Southwest DeKalb (Saturday). Sequoyah is in second place in Region 7-6A, a game behind the Knights. River Ridge defeated the Chiefs 68-53 in their first meeting in early December, and another win in the rematch would put the Knights in great shape to enter the region tournament as the No. 1 seed. Southwest DeKalb is a perennial power that is 10-4 this season and ranked No. 16 in Class 5A by MaxPreps.

“We’ve just got some really talented kids coming through our program right now,” Taylor said. “It’s not that we didn’t have talent before, it’s just that we’ve never been able to get them to play together the way that they are now. Everybody just complements each other’s game.”

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