Excitement is high around the Central girls basketball program as coach Caitlin Russell enters her fifth season as head coach.
The Lady Bulldogs won 11 games last year, which was the most since Central won 21 games in the 2010-11 season.
The even better news is the wealth of experience Russell has returning to the court this season.
“Our biggest strength will be the experience we will have on the court,” Russell said. “Only losing two seniors last season, we will have most of our varsity players back and very hungry to improve on last year’s success.”
That young squad learned a lot about itself last season, which should pay off this year.
“The biggest improvement that I saw in our program was the team chemistry we built and how our leaders brought the team together,” Russell said. “Over the course of the season we faced some adversity and our team really pulled together to overcome that adversity.”
Leading that returning group is one of the area’s best scorers in sophomore Makaiya Brooks. Brooks poured in 22.2 points per game as a freshman last season.
“Makaiya is a great talent on and off the court. Her work ethic is what separates her. She is the first one on the court and the last one to leave. She comes in early mornings to work on her game and works year round to improve her skills,” Russell said. “She’s able to be such a dynamic scorer because of her passion and love for this game. Not only does she work extremely hard on the court, but her work ethic in the classroom is just the same. She knows what it takes to be successful and she is determined and driven to be the best she can be. Last season she was our leading scorer and this season we expect her to expand on that scoring average as well as contribute more on the defense end. She’s focused on her defense this offseason and we will expect that work to pay off during her sophomore year.”
Seniors Sakirah Jones and Dasia Pence give the Lady Bulldogs a strong senior duo to lean on this winter. Jones averaged 9.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game as a junior. Pence was just behind her with averages of 9.6 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
“Sakirah and Dasia will be our leaders this year as they enter their last season as a Lady Bulldog,” Russell said. “I expect great things from both of them this season and I know they have big expectations for themselves.”
Pence missed much of the off-season’s workouts due to a concussion, but is back ready for the winter.
Jones showed marked improvement in several areas of her game in the off-season.
“Sakirah had a great offseason improving on her post moves, her ball handling, and her leadership skills on the court,” Russell said. “Sakirah is a great asset to our team (by) causing a lot of mismatches for different opponents. We’ve been working on her versatility when the double teams come, being able to shoot a jumper or make some different post moves with her back to the basket.”
Senior Kailey McMeekin and sophomore Tekaira Finley will see expanded roles this year according to Russell. McMeekin played in 15 games last year while Finley saw time in 23 varsity contests.
“We will look to them to be more of a scoring threat and contribute even more on the defensive end,” Russell said. “Kailey is a very passionate, hard worker who we will look for to be a defensive stopper. Tekaira is a great shooter and will contribute on the offensive end by being more aggressive and confident.”
Chloe Chandler and Kayla Lick are two juniors who will see more time in the varsity rotation.
Central has the scoring punch to compete each night, but their success this year will be determined by commitment on the defensive end.
“We will definitely need to improve on the defensive end this year with an emphasis on rebounding,” Russell said. “Last season we forced a lot of missed shots, but could not finish the possession with a rebound so our opponents got many second chance points.”
The other obstacle in front of the Lady Bulldogs is a move into the Ozark Conference this year.
“Joining the Ozark Conference is very exciting but does bring on high powered opponents. Our program will have the opportunity to compete for a conference championship and gain conference awards which brings excitement to our athletes. Every single game will bring a tough challenge, which means always bringing our very best,” Russell said.
Russell expects for her seasoned team to show improvement throughout the 2017-18 season.
“Overall, this season I look for our team to improve each and every night. I look for them to have more confidence, improve even more on their team unity, and go out each night and compete to the very best of their ability,” Russell said. “Our schedule is more challenging, but I expect our team to rise to the challenge and compete no matter who we face. It will be a fun and exciting year for the Central Lady Bulldogs.”
Central gets a big test right away with a road trip to face Branson on Nov. 19 to open the season.