STORY BY CHIP CIRILLO | PHOTO BY DEB SCALLY
Versatile is probably the best word to describe Grace Baird.
“She can play inside, she can play outside, she shoots the ball really well,” Nolensville coach Chris Ladd said. “She can run the point guard for us, so we kind of use her in a lot of different ways depending on how the other team is guarding us. And she can defend really well.”
The 5-foot-10 junior guard is averaging 14.2 points for the Lady Knights, who are 15-5 overall and 4-0 in District 12-AA with nine straight wins.
Baird became the first Nolensville girls player to reach the 1,000 career points milestone in mid-December.
Nate Bloedorn reached the same milestone for the Nolensville boys in November.
Baird is hitting 44-percent from beyond the 3-point line on 35-of-79 shooting.
She reminds Ladd of a player he coached at Summit, John Carter, now a freshman guard at Navy. He was a two-time team MVP and an all-state player.
“She sort of does a little bit of everything and does it well,” Ladd said. “She gets it done in a lot of ways.”
An honor student, Baird is a 73 percent shooter at the foul line and averages 2.8 assists per game.
“I think she is very hard to guard because she can score from multiple spots,” Franklin coach John Wild said. “She can make 3’s, she can put the ball on the floor and go by you, she’s a bigger guard that can score around the rim and you can do some stuff with her by posting her up. So when you factor in all of those variables, I think that’s what makes her such a hard kid to try to defend.”
Wild called Baird one of the most versatile guards he’s seen in the last five to seven years.
“I think she’s got a very high IQ and understands how the game needs to be played not only on the offensive end, but the defensive end,” Wild said.
Baird, a three-year starter, plays a utility role for the Lady Knights.
“When our point guard goes out, she’s our point guard,” Ladd said. “When the point guard’s in, she’s the shooting guard. Sometimes when our posts get into (foul) trouble, she plays the post. She’s one that I hardly ever take off the floor and she stays in almost 32 minutes every game.”
Baird and Nolensville have come a long way since the school opened in 2016.
The Lady Knights went 10-17 and finished sixth in the seven-team district that first season with only freshmen and sophomores on the roster.
Nolensville improved rapidly, going 22-9 with a runner-up finish in the district last season with its first junior class. The Lady Knights fell one win short of the state tournament after a 48-43 loss to East Nashville in a Class AA sectional.
“We were, like, nothing the first year,” Baird said. “It was definitely a huge difference between the two years. We all have such great chemistry and we’re so close as a team that it brought everything together and that’s how we got so far.”
Trevecca, Alabama-Birmingham, Lipscomb, Florida Gulf Coast and Tennessee Tech have shown interest in Baird.
Nolensville suffered a big loss when 6-foot sophomore post Zoe Piller (15.2 ppg, 11.8 rpg) went out with a season-ending ACL injury in the Lady Knight’s recent 70-42 win over Giles County.
“Going to be hard to replace that,” Ladd said.
Piller had 22 points and 16 rebounds in the team’s recent 56-42 win over Forrest.
“Their post player had 16 rebounds and we as a team only had 17,” Forrest coach Jeremy Jean told the Marshall County Tribune after the game.
Piller’s absence leaves a big void in Nolensville’s lineup, but in the Lady Knights’ first game without Piller they earned a 45-42 win at Marshall County last Friday night.
That gave the Lady Knights sole possession of first place in the district and ended the Tigerettes’ 12-game winning streak.
“It’s definitely the hardest challenge we’re going to have to overcome as a team, for sure, because she is a huge person on the boards,” Baird said. “She’s one of our main scorers and it’s a huge loss, but hopefully we can get through that.”
Baird’s dad, Doug, was a right guard on Tennessee’s 1990 Southeastern Conference champion football team. The Volunteers finished eighth in the final Associated Press poll that year under former coach Johnny Majors.
Baird wears No. 3 on her uniform because it’s the same number as her favorite NBA player, Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks.
Parker led Tennessee to two national titles and she was the first female player to dunk in an NCAA Tournament game in 2006.
She led L.A. to the league title in 2016, won two WNBA MVP awards and led the U.S. to two Olympic gold medals.
“I’ve been obsessed with her ever since I was a little Kid,” Baird said. “I’ve been to two games whenever she played for Tennessee.”
Her favorite NBA player is Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook, a seven-time all-star who’s averaging 21.8 points, 10.7 assists and 10.6 rebounds per game this season.
“I love the way he plays,” Baird said. “He’s just super aggressive and really into it.”
Baird is trying to improve her drives and finishing around the basket.
“She’s trying to get a little bit stronger so that she’s able to make more plays off the dribble and not get knocked off the ball, and be able to rebound a little better with her strength,” Ladd said. “And obviously work on quickness. I think that’s something every player wants to work on.”
Spending time in the weight room can be a challenge with so many players competing in travel ball during the offseason.
She has a laid-back personality, likes to joke around with a little sarcasm, kids her coach a lot, but competes very hard once the game starts.
Baird scored a season-high 24 points, including a 5-of-7 showing from 3-point range, in a 51-45 loss at Brentwood on Nov. 27.
The biggest moment of her career came when she hit the winning shot on a foul-line floater over two defenders with 8.1 seconds left in a 40-38 victory over Forrest in a Region 6-AA semifinal at Nolensville last season.
“That was just, like, the best night of my life,” said Baird, who was named Region MVP after the Lady Knights won the championship with a 46-38 victory over Marshall County.
The most painful loss of her career was the sectional defeat to East Nashville five days after her clutch shot.
“It really sucked because we studied their film, we did everything in practice that they would do against us,” Baird said. “We went over how many turnovers we had the first time we played them, which was a lot.”
Nolensville made 33 turnovers in a 68-39 loss to East Nashville in the regular season, but only 11 in the rematch.
The Lady Knights seized a 12-2 lead early, but East Nashville rallied in the second half to beat Nolensville.
“It really just hit us hard,” Baird said.
Nolensville avenged the loss with a 54-49 victory over East Nashville in the Middle Tennessee Invitational Christmas Tournament final at Franklin on Dec. 21.
That was the first loss for East Nashville (17-2), ranked first in Class AA.
“That just lit us up and that was a huge win for us,” said Baird, who scored 12 points in that game.
Earning a trip to the state tournament is at the top of the to-do list for Nolensville.
“That is our major goal, getting to Murfreesboro,” Baird said.