By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Savannah Gray won’t be discussing any graduation party plans with anyone on Fort Gibson’s basketball team this season.
Next year? They’ll have to watch interrupting each other.
Gray is the lone senior surrounded by eight juniors in what looks to be a nine-player rotation. Yet there’s plenty of basketball ability for the Lady Tigers to make a run at a repeat title in Class 4A, starting the year as the No. 1 team in the Phoenix Super 7.
“Well I’m OK being the only senior. It’s definitely good for Coach Walker because they’ll be around for a while,” she said, referring to the architect of this program, Jerry Walker.
“We’ve got some inexperience but by the end of the year we may be better than last year’s team.”
If they’re equally good, that could be sufficient.
Try this: During a recent 3-point drill, shooting as many as you can in a minute’s time, Gray was 17-of-22. Allie Glover was 18-of-24. Then with 25 shots from one spot outside the arc, both along with Jayme Hill, hit 16.
“We’re pretty deep in shooting ability and have much better guard play and more experience,” FGHS coach Jerry Walker said.
They’ve mixed it up well with 6A powers Edmond Santa Fe and Midwest City in scrimmages and dominated 3A power Adair.
OK, so they graduated the MVP of the state tournament in Brooke Palmer and what Walker said was a “mental part” of the team in a coach on the floor, Taylor London. The Lady Tigers, who are 85-3 the past three seasons, winning two titles in that span, are solidly in a reload mode in what has become one of if not the elite basketball program in Class 4A.
Glover averaged 11 points and 3 rebounds as a sophomore, Gray 7 points and 7 rebounds, but they’ll hardly carry the offense.
And they’re taller on average than past teams have been. CheyAnne Johnson, a 6-0 forward, averaged 5 points and 4 rebounds. They’ve also got a healthy Susie Kilpatrick, a 6-3 junior who has battled leg and back injuries for two seasons. Healthy at the moment, Walker senses a breakout year at least in some parts of her game and he knows that in both state title games, post play has been a decisive determinant in the outcome.
“It’s not like she can’t score but then we didn’t know how good a scorer Brooke was until she got the opportunity,” Walker said. “But we know what her defense is about.”
Hill, another sharpshooter, is a 5-10 junior guard. Desiree Phillips (5-9, guard, junior), Grace Parker (5-6, guard, junior) and Izzy Hubbert (5-6, guard, junior) will also get quality minutes. Phipps, a junior, moved to Fort Gibson from Tahlequah where she tore her ACL early last season after starting as a freshman.
No. 2: Sequoyah
Larry Callison remembers the time he was talked to about the job prior to Angel Goodrich’s arrival. He didn’t have the interest in coaching girls. That job went to Bill Nobles, who directed the Lady Indians to three consecutive 3A state championships and four finals trips.
Callison was offered the job as a laycoach last spring and this time, despite being set at a home in Claremore, decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth again.
“This is a high pressure job but I wouldn’t want to go to a place where I wouldn’t have a chance to be successful, and we definitely have that,’ said Callison, who coached Eufaula, Boynton and Ketchum’s boys before handing over the Ketchum job to his son Grant two seasons ago.
“We have a lot of depth and I think that’s a key because we can go 10-11 deep without hurting us too much. There’s no superstar but a lot with no differences. We may not be as quick as other teams but we can go both big and small and we won’t give up the full court pressure. That’s the way I’ve always coached.”
Four starters return – seniors Loren Young (5-10, forward), Kelsey Leach (5-6, guard), Audrey Ballou (5-9, forward) and Feather Pacheco (5-5, guard) and a transfer starter from Tahlequah, junior Jhonett Cookson (6-1, center).
Ballou averaged 15.6 points and 7 rebounds and Jones averaged 8 points, 8 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 2 assists on a team that finished 19-8 and made the 3A quarterfinals.
Losses were significant off a 26-3 team that lost in the 2A Area IV consolation finals.
Jaylie Roper is recovered from knee surgery this summer. Her back is OK too and that’s a good thing because she’s the dominant returnee on a squad that lost three starters.
Roper, a 5-11 senior forward, brings a 12.6 point scoring average with 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 steals to one forward spot. Haley Baldridge is a junior who returns.
Then there’s seven sophomores who coach Chester Pittman expects to see something out of, among them Shae Lynch and Jordan Austin.
“The sophomore group will make us more athletic than we were last year but they’re going to have to step up fast because everyone is going to be looking for Jaylie. How much that happens will determine how far we go.”
Another factor may be the move from 2A to 3A this season. It takes Oktaha away from state nemeses Northeast, Millwood and Preston but gains them Sequoyah and Adair.
“Two years ago we lost three starters and everyone thought we’d be down because they were quality starters,” Pittman said. “But we found girls that filled those roles.”
The core of the success over four years is gone – Alexus Wilson at Oral Roberts, 2012-13 MVP Kelsey McClure at Central Arkansas — but it doesn’t mean there’s not attention focused on high-caliber talent.
All of it for now is centered on 5-foot-9 sophomore Aaliyah Wilson, the younger sister of Alexus and a sophomore this season.
“The only Big 12 team we haven’t heard from is Texas,” MHS coach Doyle Rowland said.
The younger Wilson not only will step into her sister’s shoes but also have to make up for the empty shoes of McClure. It all depends on how quickly a young cast comes together that follows a starting five that narrowly missed the Lady Roughers’ second consecutive 6A state tournament.
“A lot of interchangeable parts,” Rowland said. “We’ve just got to figure out how they’ll fit together.”
Jada Ford, a 5-8 sophomore guard who came in off the bench last year, has shown some offensive potential. Lanice Rozell, a a 5-9 junior forward, also was a spark off the bench and “likes to play defense,” said Rowland. Danazia Brown, a 5-10 junior forward, could also factor in quickly on both ends of the court.
But with Wilson being the only player with significant starting experience, the road will be challenging – yet not impossible.
“We’ve had 10 girls over the last two years who are playing college basketball somewhere,” Rowland said. “There’s a lot of holes to fill but a lot of potential to fill them with.”
Scott Hensley directed the Lady Hornets to their best season since 1997 at 17-9 and that core returns, starting with 5-foot-8 All-Phoenix Newcomer of the Year Katie Kirkhart (13 points, 2 steals, 3 assists and 2 rebounds per game) as the point guard.
Juniors Hillary Calvert (9 points, 4 rebounds), Casady Mills (7 points, 4 rebounds) and Julie Plunkett (3 points) are back as guards and Nicole Wright (4 points, 4 rebounds) and Destiny Riddle (5 points) returns as forwards. Mackensie Plant’s rebounding improvement over the offseason will also help inside.
But more than anything, it’s maturity that should get Hilldale up a level, with the goal of going beyond regionals. Hilldale was 1-2 in the postseason after getting upset by Inola in districts.
“Last year we were playing with freshmen and sophomores who had never had these kind of expectations and I think even with our success in the regular season, that hurt us in the playoffs,” Hensley said.
“This year’s different. And with a lot of these girls winning state in fastpitch, their mindset is they’re driven to excel here.”
Jordan Garner moves from Eufaula, where he took the Lady Ironheads to a game away from a state tournament berth last year. His system will utilize personnel heavy on athleticism.
Jennifer Hunter averaged 8 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals a year ago as a 5-7 freshman point guard. A year later, Garner is moving her to a two-guard to take more advantage of her offense and let sophomore Desiree Moon take over at point. Nese Walters gives the Lady Wolverines an inside presence as a 6-0 junior forward who averaged 9.2 points a year ago and Erica Casey, a senior guard, averaged 9.6 points.
“Our pressure defense will hopefully allow us to play fast and we have a lot of freshmen and sophomores that will be counted on to contribute in big ways,” Garner said.
The Lady Cougars were 12-14 but return four starters, including 5-8 senior forward Sydni Rainbolt (12 ppg) and 5-3 senior guard Ali Nolan (8 ppg), who Lady Cougars coach Mickey Duncan calls a “good floor general.” Casey Nolan, a 5-5 freshman guard is Ali’s sister. A tough schedule will either make or break them in time for the postseason.
WARNER — Raven Girty, a 5-9 post who averaged 10 points a game last year, will team with three other starters on a team that went 9-14 last year. Zadie McElhaney joins her as a 5-7 guard. She was an instrumental piece of the puzzle that helped Midway get within a game of a championship in Class B last year.
TAHLEQUAH — Randee O’Donnell left the program to focus on fastpitch, Phipps is at Fort Gibson and Jhonett Cookson at Sequoyah but the Lady Tigers still have athletic guards Whitney Wright (12.0 ppg) and Marisa Girdner (5.4 ppg) and some young athleticism and quickness from a team that made it to the state quarterfinals last year. They’ll have to adjust to a new head coach in Johnny Dyson.
CHECOTAH — Kim Lewis is the Lady Wildcats’ fourth coach in as many seasons. Newakis Banks moved from Eufaula to Warner and joins eight returnees. Banks was a key part in Eufaula’s run to the Class 3A area consolation finals.
OTHER TOP RETURNEES — DeNora Wheeland, Haskell, 5-8, G, Jr., 8 ppg, 4 assists; Peyton Thomas, Gore, 5-7, G, So., 9.6 ppg; Tiffany Thompson, Hulbert, 5-7, Jr., G, 14.2 ppg.; Nina Echelle, Stigler, 9.5 ppg.
1. Fort Gibson