Photo: Members of the Coosa Christian varsity girls basketball team participated in the FCA Media Day last Sunday (Nov. 17) at First United Methodist Church of Gadsden. Pictured, sitting, from left: India Brown, Kaylee Hasley, Emily Snow. Standing: head coach Jayme Hollingsworth. (Chris McC arthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
A number of local high school basketball teams participated in the Etowah County Chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ Media Day last Sunday (Nov. 17) at First United Methodist Church of Gadsden.
Area coaches and players shared their thoughts about the upcoming season. Some teams have a few games under their belts, while others are getting set for the opening tip of the year.
Coosa Christian girls
Head coach Jayme Hollingsworth is seeing the results of the high level of competition his team faced during the summer play dates.
“We played some really tough teams at UNA and Georgia State, including some 7A schools out of Georgia that have 4,000 kids. We competed with everyone we played and beat a couple of them. Going up against that kind of speed and size helped us get ready for the season.
The Lady Conquerors have played Sacred Heart and Plainview and are coming off a 19-point win over West End.
“We’re really excited about this year,” said Hollingsworth. “The level of competition will be really strong and will get us ready for postseason play.”
Coosa will compete in Class 1A, Area 11 along with Spring Garden, Donoho, Faith Christian and Jacksonville Christian.
“It’s always tough to be in there with Spring Garden, but we feel like we can compete with them every time we play,” said Hollingsworth. “Donoho is very athletic, and JCA and Faith Christian will be much improved from last year. We just have to compete and bring the effort every night.”
Much of the Coosa offense will revolve around senior center India Brown, a four-year starter who last year averaged 16 points and 15 rebounds a game and was an All-Messenger second-team selection.
“I would dare to say that India is the best post player in Etowah County and, in my opinion, in north Alabama,” said Hollingsworth. “She’s a gym rat who works her butt off every day and has a passion for the game that I’ve never coached before. She is an enforcer inside and can step outside and beat you that way. It’s been a joy to coach India for the past four years and watch her grow.
Brown noted the closeness of the 2019-20 Lady Conquerors.
“We get along really good and we’re going to give it all we have and leave everything on the court. We know that it’s not going to be easy to get to JSU, so everybody has the mindset that we have to put in a lot of work in order to get to where we want to go.”
Hollingsworth pointed to senior guard Emily Snow, Kaylee Hasley and Bella Millirons as key factors in the team’s chance for success.
“Kaylee is a phenomenal outside shooter and Emily is a lockdown defender. We know that whoever she is guarding is going to have a rough night. “Bella is a freshman returning starter who is our second leading scorer and a top defender. She’s a big piece for us.”
Hollingsworth acknowledged that the school’s gym, nicknamed “The Coliseum,” provides a big homecourt advantage,
“Especially for a school of our size, our facilities are phenomenal. I’d have to look it up, but I can tell you that our home record over the past four years is pretty good. There’s something that makes us very tough to beat at home. Our student section and our parents get after it, and it’s a great atmosphere, especially for the big games.”
Coosa Christian boys
Jim Bogle may be in his first year at Coosa Christian but is far from a coaching greenhorn. He was the longtime boys coach at Gaston High and coached at Etowah for a number of years.
“The biggest thing for me is to see the light going on for these kids and see that they get it,” he said. “If that happens, the wins and everything else that goes with it will take care of itself.
Bogle said that senior Dartavious Britton and juniors Evan Delp and Deontae Ford “epitomize” that mindset.
“They’ve taken some hard coaching and pushed each other hard and pulled kids aside, and that’s what you want to see. Those three guys are going to have carry us and they’re going to have to understand their roles. We have a pecking order, and it’s going to run through these three kids. When you’re a leader, sometimes you have to pull or push, and I’ve got to have that from them. If you can get your best players to be your hardest workers, you’re going to be pretty good.’
Delp was named to the 2018-19 All-Messenger first team after finishing with 21.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.1 steals.
“I see a lot of potential in the group,” said Delp. “If we work hard and can get the younger kids up to speed, we’ll be all right.”
After just two victories last season, first-year head coach Kolby Brannon is confident his Bulldogs will improve as the season progresses.
“I’m fresh out of college, so I treat these guys more like little brothers,” said the 2014 Boaz High and 2019 Miles College graduate. “That being said, I stay on top of them and can be pretty tough. I had people tell me not to expect too much, but I’m the type that sets high expectations, and these kids’ expectations are high. We’ve already seen on the court what we can do, and we’re going to build on that. Our big thing is making people believe in us, but and before we can do that, we have to believe in ourselves. So far, I think we’ve done a very good job of that.”
Brannon sees junior forward Kendall Blackwell, sophomore shooting guard Jeremiah Dupree and junior point guard Nick Lewis as key contributors.
“We have a very young team, so we’re going to rely heavily on those three guys to carry the load for us. In some games, these three won’t get off the floor, and they know that going in. Conditioning-wise, we’re getting close to where we need to be.”
In terms of wins and losses, Brannon informed his players that everything is left behind once the area tournament begins.
“You can lose every game before the area tournament, then win one game and you’re in the subregionals. It’s not about what we do every night; it’s about what we do in two months’ time.”
With one returning starter, third-year head coach Brittany Brewer said 2019-20 will be a learning process for her young squad.
“Obviously, we’ll have to have some younger girls step up, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do.”
One player that Brewer is quite familiar with is senior Alyssa Gargus, who is entering her sixth year as the team’s starting point guard.
“Alyssa has been the quarterback of our team for a while, and this year she’s really owned that role and does a great job. She’s sees the floor really well and is our best defender. Unless she gets into foul trouble, Alyssa won’t be coming off the floor.”
Brewer also pointed to senior center Alexis Underwood and senior guard Tamara Foster as important to the team’s success.
“Tamera has been killing the boards, which is what I needed for her. Alexis’ biggest asset is her defense. She’s done everything I’ve asked her to do and gives every ounce of effort she has.”
Second-year coach Holly Ostendorf views her 2019-20 squad as young but experienced.
“Our main problem last year was that we had seven eighth graders,” she said. “Plus, there were nights when we had significant injuries, so there were times when we had five eighth graders starting a varsity game. That was our number one obstacle, but the girls worked through that and I think will be better players because of that. We’re heading in the right direction, for sure.”
With a still relatively young team, Ostendof is counting on seniors Kinsley Gupta, center Kirsi Gupta and senior guard Sarah King to provide leadership.
“Those three girls start the practices this year and call drills,” said Ostendorf. “We’ve put a lot of weight on their shoulders, and they’ve handled it well.”
Ostendorf affirmed that the most important part of her job is helping her players become Christian role models.
“They’ve faced a lot of adversity on the court and still love the sport. We want to see them be good, strong Christian women when they walk out of our doors. We want to send them out into the world prepared for whatever obstacles come their way.”
Head coach Matt Cody is “super excited” to have seniors Joseph Gilchrist, Andrew Lockridge, Joe Tucker, Phillip Pirani, Brandon Foster and James Martin on his inaugural roster. Cody was an assistant to Matt Dickey the past two season.
“From a leadership standpoint, that’s huge for a first-year coach,” he said. “I think defensively we’ll stay the same, but offensively we’ll press and get up and down the court a lot more. I think our kids are looking forward to that.”
Cody has a deep rotation at his disposal.
“I’ve got 10 kids that can play, and that’s how many we’ve got on the team. We’re starting a freshman in Cade Phillips, who I think will be a huge part of our success this year. I think he’s ready, and the other guys believe in him.
“Every time we step on the court, we want to have the mentality that we’re the best team. This team made the [regional] finals five times in a row except for the last two years, and we’re looking to change that. But the most important that I want to do as a coach is be a good example and role model and help them become Godly young men.”
With every starter returning from the Lady Yellow Jackets’ 2018-19 Class 3A Northeast Regional Tournament finalist, first year head coach Jamie Barkley admitted that she won’t have to do much coaching in terms of fundamentals.
“These girls want to be in your face on ball pressure, and I love a hard-nose team like that,” said Barkley, who is also the school’s varsity volleyball coach. “By the time the second quarter starts, we want to see the other team with their hands on their knees. It makes it fun to coach, fun to watch and fun to play. T
“hese girls are easy to push because they want to be pushed. They’re a team that doesn’t get tired and wants to be physical, and when you have that times 20, including the JV, that’s a great place to be.”
Barkley noted that her transition from assistant to head basketball coach was made easier with her familiarity with her players.
“Just from being in the locker room with them the past couple of years and having an established rapport with them, has made it pretty seamless. We’re all on the same page. As far back as May, these girls talked about what they could do in the offseason and in practice to get them farther than they’ve been (in the playoffs), and I’ve alrea-dy seen some of those results on the court in our first couple of games.”
“In the past two years, we’ve gotten beaten by the same tam (Pisgah) in the regional finals, so that’s where we want to get back to,” said senior point guard Anna Beth Giles, who was named the All-Messenger team’s MVP after averaging 14 points, 5.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds while helping the Lady Yellow Jackets post a 21-9 record and win the Etowah County Schools Tournament. “But with our area (Hanceville, J.B. Pennington and Susan Moore), it’s going to be hard to get back there.”
Giles scored her 1,000th point last Tuesday (Nov. 19) against Pleasant Valley.
“Our main focus is getting past [the] area [tournament] to mak it back to regionals and then push harder to make it to Birmingham (for the state tournament),” said sophomore center Aubrey Gray. “We know what we need to work on to get to that point.”
With the loss of 10 seniors from last year’s team, head coach Jason Gilley has had to replace all but one starter (Braden Hill). Along with that, recent injuries and illness have decimated the Glencoe roster to the point where Gilley recently was down to a seven-man rotation.
Nevertheless, Gilley is pleased with the Yellow Jackets’ mentality.
“These guys aren’t backing down in the few games we’ve played so far, and conditioning-wise, they’re in a little better shape than they thought they were. Even before we got started, they knew that they would have to play more minutes than they anticipated. Based off past teams, we wanted to make sure this group was willing to fight for it and not back down from teams that should beat you.
“I told the guys after the Gadsden City game (a 52-25 on Nov. 16) that I had zero problem with the way they were playing, and that should carry over to teams that we actually can compete with and need to beat to make it into the subregionals and Jacksonville. This bunch wants to win and expects to win.”
Hokes Bluff girls
According to head coach Jason Shields, the 2019-20 Lady Eagles will either shoot themselves into or out of games.
“We’ll still depend on the three-pointer and shoot at least 20 a game. Some night we’ll make those shots and look like a great team, and other night we’ll be stone cold. If we can make five 3s a game, that would help us out tremendously.
“We’ve always played good defense, but we’ve also got to score points. In the past, we didn’t give up easy buckets we also didn’t score enough off turnovers. But judging from what I’ve seen so far this year, I think we’ll create more offense.”
The senior class of Hokes Bluff Kristen Shields, Meghan Cashman, Haleigh Cashman, Jayden Presley, Aubrey Moland and Kaylee Ingram have been playing together since they were eight years old.
“We’ve all been together for so long that when I bring the ball up the floor, I usually know what player to get the ball to and know that they’ll do something good with it,” said point guard Kristen Shields, who averaged 10.3 points and 4.6 rebounds last season and was named to the All-Messenger second team.
“As a team, we’re better fundamentally and we’re in a lot better shape,” said Jason Shields. “That’s important, because fatigue can kill you.”
Last year was the first time in six years that the Lady Ea-gles did not qualify for the Class 4A Northeast Regional Tournament.
“I think we’ve got the capabilities of getting back [to Jacksonville State],” said Jason Shields. “I think we’re pretty solid defensively, but we’re going to have to show it on the offensive end. For us to beat a solid team, we’ve got to get to where we can to score 45 to 47 points every game.”
Hokes Bluff boys
Hokes Bluff boys coach Jeff Noah said that the height and length that the Eagles have enjoyed the past few seasons is not evident in his 2019-20 team.
“We’re adjusting a few things because of that, and we’re working to transition into a more up-tempo type of team. It will take some time, but I like our attitude and the way we’re practicing.”
The Eagle roster includes eight seniors but only three of which have varsity experience with Tucker Marsh, Ashton Gulledge and Caleb McGinnis.
“We had some people that didn’t get to play this summer because of injuries, so now we’re trying to mesh and gel all of that together,” said Noah. “One of the things I stress is for everyone to know his role, everyone to understand his role and everyone to excel in his role. As long as you have people working together and competing and being coachable, you can live with whatever the results are.”
Hokes Bluff will compete in Class 4A, Area 10 with Cherokee County, Jacksonville and White Plains.
“Our area is very challenging, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to catch up to some of those teams,” said Noah. “But I love competition, and our guys are getting after it in practice and responding to our coaching. Hopefully we’re getting a little better each day.”
Seven seniors, three juniors and one sophomore comprise the roster of Matt Lofthus’ first-ever varsity girls basketball team at Sardis High.
“You relish the opportunity to coach a such good a group of hard-working girls,” said Loftus, who has been an assistant in both basketball and softball during his several years as a teacher/coach at SHS. “Hopefully, they’re as excited as I am. All our girls are excited about stepping up and seeing their roles expand. We’re trying to play to each girl’s strengths and get some people some good looks.”
Loftus shared his core philosophy for 2019-20.
“We’re going to work hard, have fun and do it right. That goes for whether it’s a drill doing homework or helping a teammate or winning a ball game. Our three captains, (seniors) Hailey Hill, Jade Bonds and Molly Morris, have done a great job of setting an example for that.”
With nine seniors on the roster, head coach Van Owens does not see leadership or experience as an issue for 2019-20.
“That group is very competitive, has played together for years and understands one another. Plus, we’ve got a lot of depth, so we shouldn’t have quite as many guys play a lot of minutes. They’ll be able to get a break when they need to. It will be a huge advantage to able to rotate guys like that.”
The Lions compete in Class 5A, Area 13 along with Boaz, Crossville and Douglas.
“I think our area is a toss-up this year,” said Owens. “Boaz lost some key guys but has a good young group moving up. Crossville lost a couple of players but has its best player back. Douglas has a new coach and has some key guys back. So I think anyone can win it.”
First year head coach Blake Hudson is pleased his team’s response to the program’s sixth head coach in the past five years, adding that his players have responded well to new offensive and defensive schemes.
“We’re going to play faster than we’ve have in the past and will push the ball more. The Good Lord willing, we’ll play a more fun brand of basketball this season.”
Hudson views senior guards Amayah Ash and Jhada Whiteside as key components to the Lady Blue Devils’ quick-paced game.
“Those two girls are part of the reason that we’ll be competitive, and I’ll rely on them to the coaches on the floor. I told them, as well as the other girls, that I trust them to push it and run the floor when they have the ball. To have any kind of chance of success, we’ll have to create our own easy baskets while limited the other team’s easy baskets.”
Hudson pointed to cutting down on turnovers has been a main point of emphasis.
“It’s a matter of trying to slow down the bleeding, because [turnovers] can really hurt you. So we’ve installed a set conditioning drills in practice that is geared on making the player who turned the ball over hurt as much as her turnovers hurt the team.”
Hudson, who served as assistant boys varsity coach, head middle school coach and head junior varsity coach over the past 14 years, is also the school’s track and field coach.
“I jumped on the opportunity to come back and coach (the varsity girls),” he said. “I love the game and enjoy drawing up plays. We’ve asked every girl on the team if they felt that they improved, and every one of them said ‘yes.’”
Assistant coach Katie Bowman was a four-year starter for Etowah from 2005 to 2009 under John Butts.
“I’ve learned a lot of life lessons from basketball,” she said. “I’m really happy to be back and help the girls really take pride in the Etowah basketball program, because I haven’t seen that in years coming back as an alumnus.”
The Lady Blue Devils’ Class 5A, Area 12 competition once again will be Southside and Alexandria.
“I believe in my heart that this year’s area tournament could be won by anybody,” said Hudson. “Our new defensive schemes that [assistant] coach [Scott] Elkins helped put in will slow down some of the things Southside did last year. If we can be the gym that hosts the area tournament, that would be a huge step forward.”
The Lady Panthers made program history last season after qualifying for a first-ever berth in the Northeast Regional Tournament, and the 2019-20 version is itching to notch another milestone at Jacksonville State.
“When you accomplish something that you hadn’t done in the past, it puts you in a position that you want to get there again,” said head coach Kim Nails. “I think it makes us hungry to get there, but at the same time, we know that what we accomplished last year is no guarantee for this year. So every day, we have to improve in order to get that opportunity again. Like always, it’s not about how we start but how we finish.”
Three senior starters return in Kaylee Brown, Savannah Nunn and Macie Williams. A first team All-Messenger selection last year, Williams averaged 14.2 points and 10.0 rebounds and participated in the North/South All-Star girls basketball game in July. Brown was named to the All-Messenger Defensive Team.
“All three girls have a lot of experience, which is a plus,” said Nails. “But we lost some very strong guard play, so we can expect a lot of pressure from other teams because of that.”
Nails expects junior guards Ziniah Hardy, Lynnsey Hunt and Kynsey Marble to help fill that void, while senior Kathryn Rowe and juniors Ally Gilliland and Sydney Yancey are expected to play a significant role.
“We just have to remember that it’s important to get better with every drill and every possession,” said Nails. “We have to make sure that we’re always improving in everything we do. When you’re a cohesive group like this one with four seniors, it can push you to the point of pulling each other along. The reality of it being the last season together hopefully will make them practice and play with a little more urgency.”
With four returning starters and several other players with extensive varsity experience under their belts, the team has as much depth as Chad Holderfield can recall in his seven years as head coach of the Panthers.
“We have a roster full of guys that we trust giving minutes to,” he said. “If they’re in there for a stretch, we trust them to do what it takes to be successful. It’s a good mixture of guys and a fun locker room right now. We definitely need to get better, but it’s bunch of guys who really want to improve and get better.”
Southside’s area opposition remains Etowah and Alexandria.
“Top to bottom, our area is as tough as any other,” said Holderfield. “There will be a good team that won’t get to go to the subregioinals. What I really want is a group of guys who care about being good at the things that don’t take talent, like being high character, being great teammates and being coachable. I feel like if we can get those things right, we’re talented enough to be a good basketball team.”
Gadsden City girls
Head coach Jeremy Brooks noted that his 2019-20 squad lacks size but features more quickness than in the recent past.
“As of right now, we’re either on schedule or even a little ahead of schedule,” he said. “We’ve had to play zones the last few years and now we’re trying to pick it back up with this team and play a little bit faster. It’s sort of a different mindset in the way we play, and there’s always an adjustment period that goes along with that.”
Brooks has been stressing to his players the importance of being both mentally and physically tough, especially with the level of Class 7A competition the Lady Titans will face.
“The way we play, there’s going to be times in a game where you’re dead tired, but you’ve got to fight through that until we can get the subs in. When we play our area competition, we’re small and we’re going to be out-sized, so that’s why I’ve been preaching grit and toughness and getting the game to go up and down the court.”
Brooks was pleased with his team’s first two games, which were wins over Paul Bryant and Glencoe.
“Obviously at this time of the year, there’s stuff you need to clean up, but I thought we played pretty well. The execution wasn’t always there, but the effort was, and right now, that’s what we’ve got to have.”
Gadsden City’s Area 7 competition remains Grissom, Huntsville and Sparkman.
“Everybody should be pretty good again, and those three teams always seem to reload. They’re not going to let us back in the regional tournament just because we’ve haven’t been there the last two years; we’re going to have to earn our way in.”
Brooks pointed to junior Camille Jenkins and sophomores Tameah Gaddis and Tenise Johnson as key returnees. Jenkins averaged 14.8 points per game last season and was an All-Messenger second-team pick. Gaddis averaged 9.7 points and 3.1 assists.
“It’s going to be a lot different than last year,” said Jenkins. “We need to clean up a lot of things, but I’ve seen more effort these last two games than I have in the past, so I think it’s going to be a successful season. We have the pieces; we just need to put the puzzle together.”