By Marty Kirkland
Autumn Blackwell wasn’t a varsity contributor when Northwest Whitfield High School’s girls basketball team made it to the Class 4A state title game in 2010.
But as a freshman who was part of the program and enjoyed an up-close look at the Lady Bruins’ postseason run — and the aftermath as all six seniors in the lineup went on to play a sport in college — she did learn something from that group.
“All of them got scholarships, and they just encouraged me to keep playing and doing what I loved to do,” Blackwell said.
Well, what Blackwell loves to do is play basketball. And on Tuesday, the Northwest senior guard enjoyed her own signing day as she celebrated accepting an athletic scholarship with Chattanooga State Community College.
Although she didn’t become a full-time varsity starter until this past season, the 5-foot-8-inch Blackwell showed she could be an all-around contributor by averaging 12 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 2.5 assists per game; she was the team leader in the first two categories. Blackwell was selected to The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Girls Basketball Team, and she was also picked by league coaches for the All-Region 7-4A and All-Sub-region 7B-4A teams.
Still, Lady Bruins coach Greg Brown believes Blackwell has only given a glimpse of her potential, and he’s confident she will earn a spot in a four-year program when her two seasons with the Lady Tigers are over.
“There’s no doubt in my mind her best basketball is in front of her, and I think Chattanooga State is a great fit that gives her the opportunity to grow as a student and an athlete. ... She’s extremely athletic and a great offensive player who’s only going to get better,” said Brown, who took over as Lady Bruins coach prior to Blackwell’s junior season and was an assistant for the four years prior to that.
Blackwell has already shown her ability to improve. She saw varsity playing time during her sophomore season and made more extensive contributions the following season, but she said she became particularly dedicated during the offseason between her junior and senior seasons. She worked with private coach Ricky Taylor, a former standout at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, played AAU basketball with the Knoxville (Tenn.) Panthers and continued to work hard in the weight room.
In her own words, she also worked to be more “coachable” and operate within Brown’s offensive system instead of freelancing on the court.
“In the beginning of my high school career, I just used my athleticism and was wild and played however I wanted to,” Blackwell said. “As I got older, I started learning more and playing the way coach wanted me to rather than thinking of myself and how I wanted to do it.
“At the end of some of our games at the end of this season, I had to be smart and make smart passes and help my team get the win.”
Indeed, while Blackwell’s scoring was notable, two of her biggest plays as a senior were passes. She found Macy Weeks for a buzzer-beating backdoor layup to top Pickens 54-52 in the Region 7-4A tournament semifinals. She also made the pass that set up Halle Ford’s 3-pointer with 7.2 seconds remaining in a 40-39 win at Dalton during the regular season.
“She had a really good year, but I thought the second half of her senior year was the best she played all year,” Brown said. “A lot of teams we played focused on her, but she’s just so athletic and does a great job of scoring. And she’s a really good passer, too. She doesn’t get enough credit for that.”
Chattanooga State is a Division I member of the National Junior College Athletic Association and competes in the NJCAA’s Region 7 and the Tennessee Community College Athletic Association. According to results posted at njcaa.org, the Lady Tigers went 13-12 this past season.