Not His First Rodeo: Berry directs Cardinals into his third championship game

Banners are spread out across the walls behind the backboards inside Dollarway Fieldhouse. Three of the banners represent teams that have played in state championship games.

Ellis Berry led two of those teams to the final round, with a third one playing Thursday night in Little Rock’s Barton Coliseum. From losing in his first title game in 1996 to winning it all 10 years later, the longtime Cardinals’ head coach has learned something about competing for a championship.

“We’ve got to stay humble,” he said. “We can’t go in there expecting we’re going to win. We’ve got to be humble. Once we put everything out on the floor, leave everything out on the floor.”

His 1995-96 team had every reason to expect it would win the title. The Cardinals then had their way with Hamburg throughout the season and racked up conference, district and regional titles in what was then Class AA.

But the Lions got the last laugh, knocking off the Cardinals in the state final.

Ten seasons later, it was the Cardinals’ time. They soared to their first state title, defeating Little Rock Christian in the final.

“No one could stop the ’06 team, because number one, the ’06 team had both the offensive ability to score and defensive ability to score,” Berry said. “We went through the region (winning) in double digits. We beat them 25 (points) or more in each game.

“We weren’t just playing defense; we were scoring too.”

This year could also be the Cardinals’ time, and they’ll know for sure when the final horn in their title bout against Pottsville sounds.

Defensively, Berry said, this season’s Cards are much like his banner team of seven years ago. During this postseason, they have not allowed more than 38 points in a single game.

“The thing they are lacking, they don’t have the scoring ability,” Berry said. “The ’06 team, they could score in a second. This team can score, and they know who to get the ball to, to score.”

The most Dollarway has scored in a postseason game this year was 52 in a 20-point win over Brookland in a 4A East Region semifinal Feb. 23. Three games later in a 4A state semifinal, Brookland found a way to slow Dollarway down, but the Cardinals pulled out a 39-34 victory.

“We’re here because we work hard on defense and on offense, we just run our plays and work hard every night,” junior Joshua Liddell said.

Dollarway was knocking on the door last year, falling to Pulaski Academy in the semifinal round. One thing Berry discerns about this team from last year’s is defensive ability.

“They’re a lot (more) unselfish players than last year,” Berry said. “We had guys who had to be high-point, and that’s what got us knocked out of state last year, even though we played a good PA team.”

But many of those key contributors from last season returned, and with a little luck and the ball bouncing their way, they’ve gone from knocking on the door to entering the championship venue, hoping to leave Thursday night with Dollarway’s — and Berry’s — second state title.

“You just don’t get there,” Berry said. “You’ve got to play, you’ve got to have a team, you’ve got to have players who can play, and then you’ve got to have a luck to go along with it. The attitude and behavior of these guys, the character of these guys, that makes this team go.”