By Chris McCarthy/Editor
Experience, depth and leadership.
According to Gadsden State women’s basketball coach John Butts, those are the three things that separate his inaugural 2011-12 Lady Cardinal squad from this year’s version.
“We had 10 freshmen last year, and it wasn’t that they weren’t good leaders last season; it was that they were still figuring out the leap from high school to junior college ball. Playing all-out crazy like we did, I could see the wear and tear towards the end of the year. But with the depth we have now, we can limit minutes so maybe we won’t be worn out.”
After several years as girls basketball coach at Etowah High, Butts led Gadsden State to a 14-11 overall record and 5-5 in conference play. The Lady Cardinals finished third in the ACCC North Division and qualified for the state tournament, where Gadsden State went 1-1.
“The biggest thing for us last season was that everyone bought in to playing full-court man-to-man [defense],” said Butts. “We gave up a lot of points but also scored a lot of points and forced a lot of turnovers. Because we didn’t have a lot of size, we wanted to force the other team to play up-tempo. This year, we have size to go along with that, so we won’t have to rely on trading basket for basket.
“We now can sub a lot and wear down our opponent. We had a game the other night when it was evident that the other team didn’t want to be on offense very much.”
Gadsden State returns four of its top five leading scorers in guards Sheyenne Turner, Lacy Huckabee, Katy Miller and forward Jasmyne Reeves.
Turner, who was selected to the All-Region 22 and All-ACCC North first teams, averaged 13.1 points last year, closely followed by Huckabee at 12.7. Miller and Reeves averaged 9.6 and 9.1 points, respectively.
Huckabee, who was named to the All-North second team, starts at shooting guard, with Turner getting major minutes at the position.
“All four of those girls are good players and solid teammates,” said Butts. “Three of those four girls aren’t starting this year, but they’re getting as much or even more minutes than the starters.”
Huckabee led the team in assists (3.2) and steals (3.5) and was second in rebounds with a 5.1 average. Turner averaged 3.1 assists and 2.5 steals per game.
Miller recently had gall bladder surgery and won’t be back until January.
Also back in the starting lineup is sophomore guard and Gadsden City High School graduate Jasmine Looney, who last season led the team in rebounds at 7.4 per game and averaged 5.9 points. Looney was a walk-on last season before getting a scholarship for the second semester.
“I actually had Jasmine start as a freshmen for me at Etowah before she moved to Gadsden as a sophomore,” said Butts. “She’s our strongest player on the team and a great student who comes from a great program and a great coach (Jeremy Brooks).”
Peyton Higgins – who also is a member of the school’s volleyball squad – and Kayla Beaty are the other two sophomores. Beaty sat out last season after transferring from Auburn-Montgomery. She suffered a stress facture over the summer and just now returning to the lineup. She and freshman Calisha Parker rotate at the post position.
“Kayla is our best all-around post player,” said Butts. “She’s being recruited by several four-year schools and hasn’t really played in a game yet. To play as well as we’ve played without Kayla is a testament to our kids.”
Butts pointed out that Higgins, who was a standout basketball player for the Lady Pirates, is not just on the team as insurance against injuries.
“Boaz won the area [title] in basketball four years in a row with Peyton. She came to Gadsden State wanting to play both sports, and [GSCC volleyball coach] Angie [Sanders] and I agreed that Peyton could take up a scholarship for each sport.”
To supplement his seven-member sophomore class, Butts recruited se-ven freshmen in Parker (from Anniston), Jacksonville’s Lacey Buchanon, Section’s Taylor Adams, Anniston’s Tiakeefah Huguley, DAR’s Leigh Stahl, White Plain’s Blair Crabtree, and 2012 Hokes Bluff graduate Savannah Ward.
Buchanon and Adams were named the 2011-12 Class 4A and 2A Player of the Year, respectively.
As the team’s starting point guard, Buchanon currents leads the ACCC North Division in scoring at just shy of 16 points per game. She also is second in the league in blocks and third in both field goal percentage and steals.
Adams, who starts at forward, leads the league in rebounds at 12.5 boards per game.
“I’ve never seen two kids who put their team on their back and carried them the way Lacey and Taylor carried their teams at the [AHSAA Northeast] regionals last year,” said Butts. “Lacey’s a solid kid and a top-notch player who comes from a solid program. We had to fight off some four-year schools that had offered Taylor, but she ultimately felt like this was the best place for her to be.”
Huguley rotates with Looney at the 3-guard position.
“Tia will give you everything she has, every minute she’s out there,” said Butts.
Ward, who led the 2011-12 Lady Eagles post a 28-5 record and reach the Northeast Regional semifinals, was on Butts’ radar fro some time.
“I try to not leave somebody out that’s right under our nose,” he said. “We played against Savannah in summer ball when I was at Etowah, and I knew that she would be a great teammate and a great student. [Hokes Bluff girls basketball head coach] Jason [Shields] called and told me that Savannah was a winner and that we would regret it if we didn’t sign her. She went to one of our workouts, and it wasn’t but 10 minutes into that [workout] that [assistant coach] T.J. [Butts] said that we had to sign her.”
Butts pointed out, however, that character and academics – not basketball talent and acumen – are at the top of his recruiting checklist.
“One thing I felt that we could control and eliminate were our academic casualties,” he said. “When we’re out recruiting, we tell the kids that if they want a lot of structure and discipline, they can come here. If they want a lot of free time, we tell them to go somewhere else. It’s non-negotiable deal – our players go to study hall every day, no matter how high their grades are. We also have a zero-tolerance policy of missing classes. There’s a direct reflection on going to class and making good grades.”
That no-nonsense approach reaped immediate dividends, as the 2011-12 Lady Cardinals earned Academic All-American honors with a team-wide grade point average of 3.8. Butts added that either four or five members of his current squad carry a 4.0 GPA.
“Our recruiting strategy is based on three things – we want the best player in Etowah County, the best player in Calhoun County and the best player from Sand Mountain,” he said. “It won’t happen every year, but we don’t ever want to let one get away because we didn’t do enough homework or show enough interest.”
Butts said that he signs he freshmen to start, not to take a season off and sit on the bench and learn.
“You don’t have the luxury of doing that at a two-year school,” he said. We don’t sign a single freshman who we don’t think can come in and play right away, and these seven girls turned out to be exactly what we were looking for.”
Butts also took some free advice from GSCC men’s basketball coach Todd Ginn.
“He told me never to sign someone who you don’t want to be with on a four-hour bus trip. That makes a lot of sense, because you’ll be real close proximity with these kids, not only in games and practice but also in study hall and traveling. Our other philosophy is to never let somebody go whom you’d not want to play against.
“The biggest thing is convincing the high school kids who thought that they went hard in practice every day, that they really weren’t going as hard as they were capable of. These kids who were all-state in high school are now going up against kids that are equally as good.”
Butts sees the ACCC North as wide-open this season.
“Everybody’s pretty solid. Wallace-Hanceville and Shelton are always really good, and Snead and Southern Union are much improved. As tough as our conference schedule is, I’m hoping that our depth will be the biggest thing that helps.”