After losing five seniors and a rising star freshman from last season’s region championship team, but that’s not how Madison County girls basketball head coach Dan Lampe is choosing to look at things differently.
The 2018-19 squad was full of stars and experience, and as a result, began the season at its ceiling. The Red Raiders start the 2019-20 season in the cellar, but as new faces rise behind the leadership of superstar Kayla McPherson, Lampe believes this team can rise to the same levels as previous years’ teams.
“All our other year’s, we were a known commodity,” Lampe said. “We came out on eight-cylinders, hitting fast-break stuff, going and going. This year we’re starting out slower, but we’re going to show so much more improvement by the end of the year than we have in the last two years because we have so many players who don’t have any varsity experience at all.
“Luckily, everyone showed up this summer and worked their tails off. So, we’re a lot better off starting the year than I thought we would be. I thought hopefully by region we could find our footing”
To see the Raiders reach their potential, Lampe says he just needs to see maximum effort from his new group of girls. The inexperience isn’t going to keep Madison County from playing its quick, aggressive style.
“If we come out and give all-out effort, and focus and come to every practice to get better, we’re going to be a much better team,” he said. “We have enough players where if someone is not giving 100-percent, we can pull them out and put in someone who will. There’s competition for time and positions.
“By the time we get to region play, we should be the favorite to repeat.”
MCPHERSON COMPLETES HER GAME
Since her freshman campaign, McPherson’s game has been near complete. She’s always shot daggers behind the arc, drove the lane with poise, moved well without the ball and played lockdown defense, all while also being a good distributor.
State and national media took notice. Gatorade and the USA Today each named her the girls basketball player of the year in the state of Georgia. Prospect Nation ranks her the No. 2 player in Georgia and the No. 11 player in the nation, worthy of being a five-star prospect.
But her game has always lacked a mid-range jump shot, until now. Lampe touted McPherson’s devotion in the offseason to perfecting her pull-up jumper and has confidence she can use it effectively each night. Lampe pointed out another advantage of her mid-range shot; less charges.
“Her pull-up jumper is the real deal now,” he said. “Last year I felt she could get to the rim and shoot the three. They (opponents) took a lot of charges and ran her off the three. Now she has a pull-up jumper and she elevates and hits it at a good consistency. That shot is going to keep her from fouling out and it gives her another option.”
She rounds out her game further by taking on the sole leadership role on the team. McPherson is the only returning starter from either of the last two seasons. That carries a lot of weight in the locker room, weight Lampe is confident she can handle.
“That’s been a big part of her transition into her junior year is being a leader,” he said. “Last year, we had all those seniors who had been here forever. Now she is the leader, she has to lead by example and in work.
“She’s progressed since this summer when she was still playing inside her head, now she’s coaching on the court. Even in practice she’s stopping and showing them how to do things.”
FINDING SIZE AFTER DEPARTURES
Losing a player like Jordan Bailey is bad enough. The three-year starter in the post was one of the program’s best players and is now playing Division I basketball at Old Dominion. The Raiders also graduated Sydney Armstrong, a starter for all of last season and of many games the two previous years.
The biggest loss was the unexpected loss of Mallory Bates who left the program after just one season, moving to Florida. After a solid freshman campaign, she seemed poised to step into Bailey’s role as a dominant post player. Her loss had Lampe searching for answers in the post.
“We lost three big post players and it’s really going to be by committee,” Lampe said. “We have size in Ella (Chancey), Caitlyn (Arwood), Tommenesha (Heard) and Hayley Daniels. What they lack in court experience, they make up in hustle, they’re hustle players. We’re going to get a lot out of them.”
Chancey and Arwood will fill the roles of stretch-four and stretch-five, using their size down low and shooting skills around the arch. Heard will play as a more traditional style center.
“Both of them (Arwood and Chancey) have shown a lot of promise with their three-ball,” he said. “That’s what we need because teams are going to collapse in on Kayla. If we can keep them honest and kick the ball out and hit wide open three’s and just 30-percent, that’ll keep them honest and they can’t run all that junk stuff.”
Heard is beginning to turn the corner in her high school career and now has the skill and mentality to match her frame. Lampe expects her to have a break-out season.
“She was always that tall player who hadn’t found her stride yet,” Lampe said. “Now you see her finishing correctly. Her footwork is right, she’s finishing left and right. At the top of that press, she gets her hands on a lot of balls. All the deflections turn into turnovers and layups.”
Another star on the rise is sophomore Tiffany Wilson. She had a quiet freshman season, but the potential was always evident. In the offseason, she pushed herself by working with and challenging McPherson and that devotion has paid off in Lampe’s eyes.
“Tiffany has really improved her game,” he said. “She’s hitting the rim well, shooting the three well. I think as her confidence builds, as the season goes on, she’s going to be more and more of a 15-point player by Christmas time.
“She’s playing really seasoned. We’ve been having all these morning workouts and she’s working out against Kayla. That’s great for her. That’s the best scenario if you’re in tenth grade and you want to improve your game. What better can you ask than to go against Kayla? It helps her a lot.”
CHANGE IN STYLE
To address the inexperience, Lampe says all positions besides point guard are by committee. The Red Raiders are going to substitute frequently to keep fresh bodies on the floor.
“We’re our up-tempo style, we have so many young players, we’re able to keep them rolling, keep them fresh and really tire out teams,” he said. “Our motto is ‘tempo above everything.’ We have to create tempo, we have to get up and down the court. We can’t play half-court games with people.”
Despite the inexperience, the skill and energy is still there to compete for a Region 8-AAAA Championship. The championship will again be decided by Madison County’s rivalry with North Oconee. The Titans handed the Raiders their only region loss last season. The Titans are also replacing five seniors, but they had five juniors on last year’s squad to provide experience for this season.
Stephens County will be a new challenger for the region crown. The Indians graduated two seniors, but returns the core of the team including their leading scorer as well as a post player who’ll compete for rebounds with anyone.
St. Pius is in the same situation. Only lost two seniors and returns the bulk of the team that played Madison County in the Region 8-AAAA Championship Game last season.