It took Nolensville only four years to make its first state tournament, but Chris Ladd had to wait 22 years as a coach.
The Lady Knights (27-4) debut against Melrose (30-5) in the Class AA quarterfinals at 10 a.m. Thursday at Middle Tennessee State’s Murphy Center in Murfreesboro.
“Never really got close in coaching boys and switched over to the girls,” Ladd said. “I think our team, we’re talented obviously, but we have such a good culture. The girls like each other, they play for each other, they share the ball, they want to defend and it’s a real credit to this group of girls that we’ve had.”
Nolensville won only 10 games during its first season when the school had only freshmen and sophomores.
“These five seniors that we have, they were all on the team that first year,” Ladd said. “(The state tournament) kind of seemed like a long way away and we were just trying to figure things out that first year, so it’s cool to see it come full circle.”
Many of the Nolensville athletic programs are enjoying early success. The volleyball team won a Class AA title in the fall and soccer finished as a state runner-up.
Football made it to the Class 4A semifinals and baseball advanced to the Class AA semifinals. Boys basketball advanced to consecutive sectionals from 2018-19.
“As a guy who’s been around a long time, I keep telling folks it’s not supposed to quite happen this way, but I do think that everybody kind of expects it right now, especially on the girls side,” Ladd said. “I’m sure the softball team is probably thinking the same thing, ‘We’re supposed to make it there.’ I don’t know if there’s any rhyme or reason why we’re having the success we’re having, but I think it is contagious.”
Nolensville’s girls basketball team almost made it to state during the second year of the program’s existence when it lost to East Nashville 48-43 in the sectional.
“So this year it was just sort of like, ‘Hey, let’s get there,’ ” Ladd said. “It’s kind of our last chance with these five seniors. We just kind of felt like this could be the year.”
Ladd coached Page boys for eight years and Summit’s boys for five seasons before arriving at Nolensville.
His daughter, Caymin, is a wing in basketball and she played middle hitter in volleyball.
Ladd made it to state as a guard during his senior year at Overton in 1993, a team he lead in scoring with 13.4 ppg.
“I told the girls you’re going to love the experience this week,” Ladd said. “You feel like a rock star for a while and everybody is talking about you and wanting to watch you and support you. It’s been cool to go through it again with them.”
Guard Brandon Wharton and 6-foot-9 post Brian Watkins were future college players on that Overton team. Wharton went on to play at Tennessee and Watkins started his career at Notre Dame before transfering to Maryland after one season. On that same team, Jeff Lockridge averaged 12 points per game, including seven game-winning or game-tying buzzer beaters during his career.
Nolensville is known for its man-to-man defense, 3-point shooting and balanced scoring.
Senior point guard Grace Baird (14 ppg), 6-0 junior post Zoe Piller (12.6 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and senior guard Parker Leftwich (10.5 ppg, 5.8 apg) each have double-digit scoring averages.
Piller is the is daughter of former Titans guard Zach Piller and Baird’s father is former Tennessee Volunteers guard Doug Baird.
Piller’s sophomore season ended last January with a left ACL injury.
“I would never want to go through another torn ACL,” Piller said. “Just knowing I won’t be able to play the sport I love for 10 months or so, maybe even a year. Just knowing my friends are playing and I’m at physical therapy doing band work three times a week for about nine months.”
Piller said she doesn’t take any game or play for granted after missing the second half of last season.
Three Lady Knights have signed letters of intent: Baird (Trevecca), Leftwich (Bryan) and senior Sydney Mickulin (Embry-Riddle, Ariz.)
Mickulin and Ladd average about 8 ppg in Nolensville’s eight-man rotation.
“We have multiple scorers,” Baird said. “It’s not just one scorer. It would be very hard, I feel like, to defend us.”
Melrose is led by sophomore guard Chara Ferguson and junior post Destanee Wallace, who both average about 15.5 ppg.
“They’re super athletic and pretty quick,” Baird said. “They remind us of a couple of teams we’ve played, one of them being East Nashville.”
Nolensville punched its ticket to the state tournament in Saturday’s 35-31 sectional win over Westmoreland, the Lady Knights’ 17th straight victory.
Nolensville’s last loss was to Brentwood, a Class AAA tournament team, in January.
“They’re just tough to guard,” Ladd said. “They shoot it so well and they can spread you out. We had some trouble keeping up with them.”
Ladd is glad Brentwood and Nolensville both made it to state even though they’re rivals.
“Coach (Myles) Thrash and I are buddies,” Ladd said. “It’s good to see them do well also.”