In the midst of the celebration, presentation of trophies and medals, Larry Callison couldn’t really think about the future. Nor did he want to.
The Sequoyah head coach had just won his second straight Class 3A state title and his third in four years. His Lady Indians had just beaten Kingston 53-51 at Jim Norick Arena in Oklahoma City to earn some more rings. There was no reason for anyone to look ahead to the future because the present was as sweet as could be.
Once the pandemonium died down and Callison returned home with his team, he finally had a moment to look ahead. It was then that a sudden realization dawned on him.
“Oh man, we have everybody back.”
That’s the case for 3A’s girls basketball latest dynasty. All five of last year’s starters, as well as three of the five most valuable players on the bench, are all back to turn back-to-back into back-to-back-to-back.
The team’s core of Alexys Keys, the All-Phoenix MVP the past two seasons, and fellow team selection Jonia Walker along with Lana Gass, Jaide Long and Aubrey Brown will remain intact for the 2018-2019 campaign. In addition, the team’s sixth starter of sorts, Calesa Murdock, is also back.
If you’re looking for a three-peat and have two returning senior starters and three returning junior starters in your lineup, you’re already off to a good start.
“They want to go out of here with some of them winning three rings and trying to win back-to-back-to-back,” Callison said. “It’s talked about very little, but in the back of their minds, they’re thinking about it. This is a very confident group. Not too many things shake them. They’ll play well.”
Winning a title is nothing new for the sixth-year coach. What is new, however, is entering a season with this level of experience. And oh, what talented experience it is.
“Most of the time here, we’ve lost several kids and had to regroup,” Callison said. “One of my assistants said the other day, ‘This is the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve had the whole group coming back.’ Our kids have played together and won together, so we don’t have to do a lot of different things to try to get other kids into the program.”
“We know what we’ve got.”
While the Lady Indians have many returning starters to be thankful for, none may be more important than Keys.
As a sophomore, she averaged 19.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4. 1 assists and 4.2 steals per game. She led the team with 18 points in its state title victory in March.
She’s already received numerous offers from Division I schools, including Oklahoma State, but for now, her main focus is on collecting more rings.
“What I’m going to see from her even more than I have in the past is her leadership, but in a quiet way,” Callison said. “She’s not a real boisterous leader, but it’s about her hard play and her dedication that she brings to the table. Everybody else sees that.”
Roughly 16 miles east of Sequoyah, the reigning Class 4A champions find themselves at the other end of the experience spectrum.
Fort Gibson, which beat Harrah 55-41 in Oklahoma City, has won four state titles in the last eight years and always expects to be in the title conversation. For it to win back-to-back titles, however, it will need its inexperienced roster to step up.
The Lady Tigers have lost 90 percent of their scoring from last season as four of their five starters graduated.
Coach Chuck London, who’s in just his second year as the head coach but has been with the program for all of its successes this decade, knows that a rebuild (or, in the program’s mind, a reload) is always necessary after a championship.
However, the task of rebuilding has never been this daunting.
“We don’t have the experience behind (last year’s starters) that we have had in the past,” London said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have good players, because we do. We’re just a little less experienced with the kids coming in this year.”
Despite the lack of starting experience, London’s still seen the potential of his new lineup in action. Players like Reese Webb played crucial roles for the Lady Tigers last year off the bench.
“We have some girls who played some last year, who rotated in and played important roles in us winning the title,” London said. “We wouldn’t have won without our bench last year. We’ll rely on those girls coming back and starting for us and helping us out and leading us in the right direction.”
London specifically mentioned senior Daniel Johnson, who “was a difference-maker who played her best ball down the stretch in the state tournament” to conclude a season in which she averaged 5.3 points and three rebounds per game. He also praised senior Hannah Johnson for the “toughness factor” she brings to the team and her plays in the state tournament last season.
The Lady Tigers’ lone returning starter, junior guard Zoey Whiteley, averaged 5.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and three assists per game a season ago. Now, she’ll be leaned on more heavily as a playmaker because of her experience.
“She’ll bring two important factors: leadership and experience,” London said. “Outside of that, she brings toughness. Mental toughness, physical toughness, she’s just relentless, especially on the defensive end. Those qualities will help us tremendously.”
Despite the lack of experience, Fort Gibson still expects to be as strong as usual. That’s a fair expectation for a program that’s made 14 consecutive state tournament appearances.
It’s an expectation that London’s program will always embrace.
“We talk about expectations because this team understands what’s come before them,” London said. “Once we talk about it, put it on the table and discuss it as a team and coaching staff, it’s cliché, but we have to focus on getting better every day, every game and every practice. We don’t focus on expectations. We focus on the job at hand.”
“I think we did a good job at that last year and I think the team this year will do the same.”
Fort Gibson and Sequoyah could meet in the Old Fort Classic in January. They’ll definitely meet Feb. 11 at Sequoyah’s The Place Where They Play.
Rounding out the preseason Super 7:
3. Webbers Falls – With four starters back from a 20-8 team, including All-Phoenix selection Shianne Garrison, coach Jerry Ward’s team should take another step forward after falling in the Area Consolation Finals a season ago.
4. Porter – The Lady Pirates are in good shape, returning key players like 6-2 Shaylea Hawley from a 21-3 season. The team has a new coach in Jeff Walker, previously the head coach at Stigler and the son of Porter principal Jerry Walker.
5. Eufaula – The Lady Ironheads won 18 of their 24 games last season and return four starters, including versatile upperclassmen in Macayla Needham and Jordan Jones. Eufaula has a new coach in Jeff Oliver.
6. Tahlequah – The Lady Tigers lose seven seniors from last season’s state tournament team, including four starters, but return seniors Taya Green and Alli Stayathome. Stayathome averaged nearly 11 points and five rebounds in 2017 but missed all of 2018 with a knee injury.
7. Hilldale – The Lady Hornets will look to improve on last season’s 12-16 record but with Payton Kight averaged 10.,4 points, 5.1 rebounds. Peyton Gaddy averaged 6.1 points and 6.3 rebounds. Madi Folsom, who averaged 15.3 points a game and 8 rebounds fora freshman team that went 15-3, along with 10 players who played in the Area Tournament give the Lady Hornets some depth.
A look at others which forms were received by:
Muskogee – The Lady Roughers went just 2-21 last year. Coach Shonika Breedlove sees hunger and motivation and hopes it is led by returning seniors Madison Maxwell and Makalynn Richardson.
Warner — Jaylee Kindred is a presence inside for Warner. The 6-2 forward/post averaged 12.3 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocked shots for a team that returns three starters from a 13-13 outfit.
Oktaha — Returns four starters and among them, only one senior. Gracie Pendley, a 5-6 guard, averaged 12 points, but she’s only a sophomore. There’s a high ceiling for a team that went 10-16 a year ago.
Okay — Shayni Green, Carmon Haynes and Kinlea Green are all underclassmen and starters who return. Lexi Erb, a freshman, brings some size at 5-10.
Porum – After a 14-12 season, the Lady Panthers have higher aspirations this year thanks to the return of Cambry Hokit, who scored 12.2 points and hauled in 6.4 rebounds per game last season. She’s recovering from a fracture but should be a valuable contributor this season.
Vian — Magen Eckhardt and Latisha Harrison are two seniors among five returnees. Coach Jason Garner hopes this returning group gives the younger girls the leadership mix to have a successful run. No returnee is taller than 5-4.
Wagoner – The Lady Bulldogs will need big seasons from their trio of upperclassmen (Dez Penney, Shamaira Virgil and Megan Hawkins) to improve on last season’s 9-18 mark.
Braggs – The Lady Wildcats will look to bounce back from a 3-23 season. Zanya Roe and Kendra Malone are returning starters while Cessna Kimberlin and Alex Chandler are freshmen to watch.