From Sports Staff
Both the 2009-10 and the 2010-11 girls high school basketball seasons ended with an area team playing for a GHSA state title.
Last season ended without a local team in any of the GHSA state tournaments.
Although Christian Heritage made a strong run in the GISA Class 2A state tournament, advancing to the semifinals for the third time in five years, there was more disappointment than delight for area programs on the court last season.
However, the chance for a new start and better results is almost here. All seven local teams — Christian Heritage, Coahulla Creek, Dalton, Murray County, North Murray, Northwest Whitfield and Southeast Whitfield — will begin the regular season by this month’s end, and most will have a couple games behind them when Thanksgiving weekend comes to a close.
As those opening dates approach, teams have been dealt changes in regions and associations, not to mention starting lineups and head coaching jobs. But whatever their situation, they’ll have the chance to show who they are on the floor soon enough.
Here’s a look at what the season holds for each area program.
As they face the challenge of GHSA competition for the first time, the Lady Lions are coming off one of their best campaigns in program history — but most of the key players from last season’s run to the GISA Class 2A state semifinals are gone.
Maggie Peeples, The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Girls Basketball Player of the Year for 2011-12, is at Shorter College. Ann Marie Massengale, who averaged 14 points per game and was the team’s dominant inside presence in a guard-oriented lineup, graduated. Caroline Tarpley, who had a standout freshman season by averaging a dozen points, transferred to Calhoun.
That leaves most of the offensive load on the shoulders of senior Rebecca Leonard, who averaged just less than 11 points last year. After that, the Lady Lions are young and short.
“We are finding out everyone’s role and looking for some consistency,” coach Heather Lowery said. “We played a lot of area teams this summer at camp, and we feel like we have worked hard. It is going to be different, but we like to compete. We are anxious to get to it.”
Christian Heritage, which will compete in Region 6-A, opens the season at 7:30 p.m. Thursday against host Dalton — which played for the GHSA Class 3A state title two years ago — in the Lady Cats Invitational.
The challenge for a school taking a step up in competition is daunting, and having to do it with a young, untested roster is something else. But Lowery said the girls are up to the challenge.
“Even though we are young, we feel like we will compete and do well,” she said. “The thing we like about it the most is that we will build new rivalries and that will be a big plus.”
Leonard, a 5-foot-4-inch wing who will play college softball at Samford, and point guard Alexis Poag will be on the perimeter with Sarah Massengale filling the post position previously held by her older sister. Sophomore Jordan Suddath is the other post. Drew Tipton is the tallest player on the team at 6 feet.
“They have to get experience somehow, but I really like this team,” Lowery said. “I like their work ethic, and there is something special about them. They will work hard and do well.”
As the Lady Colts enter their second season of competition, the upside is that all five starters return with a year’s worth of experience, as well as depth to back them up.
The downside is that they’re still looking for the first victory in program history.
Ryan Long — who took over as coach in the offseason when David Friend retired after a 30-year career in high school education and athletics — is looking for his team’s personality to take shape as it continues the quest for that first win.
“My job right now is to identify what their roles are on offense,” said the 29-year-old Long, a 2002 graduate of Murray County High who was Coahulla Creek’s boys junior varsity coach last season. “Last year, with being so young, I don’t think they knew their identity. I’m really trying to focus in on that on both the offensive and defensive side.”
Sophomore guard Hannah Locke averaged 6.2 points per game as she led the team in scoring last season, and Long said he expects “great things from her from the outside.” Junior guard Haley Reece is expected to provide solid defense, while sophomore forward Macey Fossett and lone senior Jamie Steadman will provide help on the perimeter.
Freshman Bethany Goodwin and sophomore Ashton Patterson, a transfer from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, will see time at point guard. Junior Allie Thompson and sophomore Maureen Ross will work in the low post. Sydney Storey, a sophomore, will add depth in the backcourt after a strong offseason in which she improved her shot, Long said.
Long hopes the energy his young team has shown in practice carries over to games.
“We’re still young, but experienced,” Long said. “The girls have played one full year on varsity. We’re not wanting to say that youth is a negative ... we don’t even think about their age. We’re just concentrated on doing what we’ve got to do, and that’s going 100 percent. We can’t go 70 or 80 percent, it’s got to be 100 percent at all times. That’s what we’re striving for.”
Coahulla Creek, which has moved from Region 7-2A to 5-3A this year, will open its season Nov. 30 at home against Christian Heritage.
After going through the regular season undefeated in sub-region play last season, the Lady Catamounts were hoping for another run in the state tournament. Instead, they didn’t even make it out of the region bracket.
Dalton lost to Gilmer in the opening round of the Region 7-3A tournament and never got a chance at state. Since then, the loss to the Lady Bobcats has been a nagging memory.
“The Gilmer game has been mentioned several times since then,” coach Jeff McKinney said. “We fully expected to go to the playoffs, but we had a very bad offensive showing, Gilmer had a good game defensively and one bad night can end your season. It was doubly disappointing for me because it was my daughter’s last game. It has eaten at me for a while.”
Dalton returns to the court this season minus Chandler McKinney and Annie Kate Snyder, but four starters — keyed by wing Maddie Howell — return and several other players received significant playing time last season. Howell, Brooke Thomas, Carson Sharp and Sarah Stinnett all started at times last year.
Still, while Dalton will have six seniors with experience as they move into Region 7-4A, the group has little in the way of a scoring pedigree. Howell and Chandler McKinney carried much of that scoring load last year, and coach McKinney is counting on Howell to do the same at least early in the year.
“Maddie just loves to play and loves to score,” he said. “I don’t see it being a burden to her because we have several around her who have done very well in practice, so I am interested in seeing us play. Maddie has three years of varsity experience behind her. That is extremely important that she has been through the battles.”
Dalton relied on its pressure defense last year, but with the team facing another year of being at a height disadvantage, McKinney said Lady Cats will have to be even more pressure-packed with their full-court attack.
“As a group, I think we are quicker or as quick as we were last year,” McKinney said. “Our practices have been a lot more running than they have ever been since I have been at Dalton. In order for us to be really successful, we will have to be in much better shape and play for 32 minutes.”
Dalton’s season begins in its own Lady Cats Invitational against Christian Heritage at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
The Lady Indians are in new surroundings, but they aren’t on an easy path to success.
“We jumped out of the pan into the fire,” coach Michael Hill said. “Although we dropped from 3A to 2A, we’re competing against two of the top teams in the state.
“Calhoun will be a serious contender. Model is always up there. Last year we went against teams like Allatoona, Dalton and Cartersville, and it was tough. It’s not getting any easier for the girls this year.”
The Lady Indians struggled to 8-19 overall and 2-9 Sub-region 7B-3A records last season with a roster full of freshmen and sophomores. Those players are older, wiser and more experienced as Murray County prepares to battle in Region 7-2A.
Murray County returns four of five starters from last season, with guard Kellie Newport the lone loss from the lineup. Point guard McKenzie Carroll and guard Holly Stanfield — who led the Lady Indians in scoring and assists last season — and posts Katlyn Richardson and Caitlyn Sims form the team’s nucleus in its third season under Hill’s direction. Carroll, Sims and Stanfield are juniors, while Richardson is a sophomore.
“Because we were so young a year ago, our core group is made up of sophomores and juniors,” Hill said. “There are no seniors at all, so we’ll still be somewhat young, but they have a year of experience. I believe we’re going to be more competitive than we’ve been in a long time. We want to get the program back on track where it used to be.”
According to records posted at Ga.PrepCountry.com, the Lady Indians haven’t come close to posting a winning mark since going 13-14 in the 2004-05 season. Since then, the Lady Indians are at least 70 games under .500.
“But this group plays team ball,” Hill said. “Nobody’s selfish. It’s a cohesive unit.”
Murray County opens the season a week from today against Ooltewah (Tenn.) in the Zaxby’s Thanksgiving Classic at Ridgeland High.
Everyone is back from the 2011-12 team that gave North Murray its first winning record — the Lady Mountaineers went 17-13 last season, a year after going 4-22 — and coach Keith Robinette sees plenty to like about having that group together again.
“We improved tremendously last year,” Robinette said. “With our first senior class for the girls now, they’re a year older and more mature.”
Robinette has confidence in the shooting of senior guard Abigail Bradley and junior guard/wing Kara Bradley, the team’s best outside offensive options last season, and the team has excellent size at post. Seniors Meagan Spivey (6-1) and Casey Chapman (5-9), junior Grace Phillips (5-9) and sophomore Erin Robinson (6-1) form the inside core, while senior Hannah Hensley (5-10) will log extensive time as a combo point guard/wing.
Robinette said Robinson, Hensley, Bradley and Deal all averaged 6 to 9 points per game last season.
Others vividly in the mix include sophomore point guard Megan Pittman, senior guards Taryn Thomas and Lindsey Ray and senior wing/guard Dara Dople.
“We’re 10 deep,” said Robinette, whose team has moved from Region 7-2A to 5-3A. “We have a lot of balance.”
And Robinette isn’t worried about confusion over who does what.
“With the game experience that most of them have, these kids understand their roles,” Robinette said. “I’ve been hard on them, this year more than the past. They’ve responded well. With our depth, we hope to wear teams down. We want to take advantage of our height. Defensively, we want to press. We want to push the tempo.”
Robinette said the Lady Mountaineers are “definitely eyeing” a region championship this season.
“That is a lofty but realistic goal,” said Robinette, who will be assisted for the second straight year by Audre Allen but is joined for the first time by former Murray County girls coach Traci Rankin, who led the Lady Indians from 2005 to 2010.
North Murray’s season opens at 6 p.m. Thursday against Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. in Dalton’s Lady Cats Invitational.
No one on the Lady Bruins’ roster has state tournament experience.
For a group that was one win away from playing beyond the region tournament last season, that fact is motivational fuel.
Without much size but plenty of speed, second-year coach Greg Brown hopes to run teams off the court this season, especially with an experienced point guard in Halle Ford. The junior has started since her freshman season in Tunnel Hill.
“We’re not very big,” Brown said, “but we’re very fast, and we’re just trying to play a lot of ‘Here we come.’”
Four seniors are the other projected starters: center Sarah Thomas, guards Alice Ann Barber and Autumn Blackwell and guard/forward Kaitlin Wade. The latter started last season. Fellow seniors Mackenzie Mastin, Liz Trew and Maddie Richards join juniors Mallory Souther, Macy Weeks and Kerrigan King in the 11-deep rotation designed to set a tough pace.
“We want to wear them down and keep them running,” Wade said. “When they are dying in the fourth, we won’t be.”
That’s a different style from last season, when the Lady Bruins relied heavily on senior center Carley Fetzer, a selection to The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Girls Basketball Team, and senior guards Marissa Fraire and Taylor Baker, both of whom earned honorable mention.
“We lost some size,” Brown said, “but we’ve got some more size coming. It’s just a little bit young. We want to play fast.”
The Lady Bruins went 15-11 last season, with their year ending with a 52-34 loss to Forsyth Central in the Region 7-4A tournament quarterfinals, where a win would have equaled a berth in the state tourney. In the new Region 7-4A that includes Dalton and Southeast, the goal is to go at least one game beyond a year ago.
“I guess the biggest thing with this group is I don’t have anybody on the roster who has played in a state tournament game,” Brown said. “That’s probably the first time that’s happened at Northwest in a long time. I have a highly motivated group to get back.”
Northwest opens its season Tuesday against Woodland-Bartow in the Southeast Hoopfest.
First-year coach Mike Durham is hoping defense is the Lady Raiders’ strong suit this year, especially with a slew of returning players after a not-so-great 2011-2012 slate.
Seniors Megan Collins, post, and Tavi Parris, shooting guard, are expected to provide leadership. Collins, a selection to The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Girls Basketball Team as a junior, averaged 13.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game last season as Southeast finished 1-25.
“We didn’t have a lot of success last year and we’ve got to get them back thinking, ‘We can win,’” said Durham, who takes over for Elizabeth Crane, who resigned after last season.
Durham wants defense, both in the front and back court, to be the focus for Southeast, which makes the move from Region 7-3A to 7-4A.
“That’s what we preach,” he said. “Defense is the key. That’s what can’t take the night off. ... If you play strong defense, then you’ll give yourself a chance. If you protect the ball, then you’ll give yourself a chance.”
Four junior posts — Serena Ramsey, Wendy Perez, Brooke Hasty and Tiffany Robertson — provide plenty of interior depth. Judelle Herrera, a sophomore, should see a lot of minutes at point guard after experiencing court time as a freshman. Senior guards Angelica Herrera, Brittany Painter and Samantha Gravitt also will contribute.
“I think our ball handling and stuff has gotten better,” Durham said. “It’s things that don’t happen overnight that we’re working on. If I took over the state championship team, then I’d still be doing these things.”
Considering last year’s struggles, Durham left the team goals open-ended and only wants to see improvement from the start to the finish of the schedule.
“If we play hard, then I think we’re going to win some ballgames,” he said.
The Lady Raiders’ season opens Nov. 23 in the Southeast Hoopfest. They have a bye into the second round of the championship bracket and will take on the winner of Meigs County (Tenn.) and Tri-Cities, who play two days prior in the opening round.
— Written by The Daily Citizen sports writers Devin Golden and Chris Whitfield and correspondents Larry Fleming, Dave Gordon and Doug Hawley.