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CLAYTON COUNTY GIRLS BASKETBALL PREVIEW

Photos by Derrick Mahone
Jonesboro guard Briana Benson will be counted on to help lead the Lady Cardinals back to the Class AAAA semifinals.

Photos by Derrick Mahone Jonesboro guard Briana Benson will be counted on to help lead the Lady Cardinals back to the Class AAAA semifinals.

Drew

Last season: 23-6, lost to Hephzibah in first round of Class AAA playoffs

Region: 4A-AAAAA

Coach: Candence Jackson (fourth season)

Returning starters: C Lakyha Sims (6-1, Jr.)

Others to watch: F Timyah Holloway (5-7, So.), G Danielle Sims (5-6, Jr.), G Brandi Sweat (5-6, Sr.), G Jada Hargrove (5-5, Fr.).

Outlook: The Lady Titans lost eight seniors, including standout guard Precious Person to graduation. Jackson said this season’s squad has a lot of talent and that they will not be relying on just one player to carry the scoring load. Last season, Sims averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds in helping the team reach the region championship game for a second straight season. Jackson is expecting Hargrove to step in and play a key role for the team.

Dutchtown

Last season: 19-8

Region: 4A-AAAA

Coach: April Tate (third season)

Returning starters: SG Domonique Clune (5-10, Sr.); PF Sydney Gumby (5-7, Sr.); SF Kivanna Kudratt (5-7, Sr.); PG Victoria Nelson (5-4, Sr.); C Tiara Scott (5-11, So.).

Others to watch: G/F Amanda Brodie (5-11, So.); PG Ciera Lowe (5-3, So.).

Outlook: With seven seniors and all five starters back, the Lady Bulldogs seem poised to get back to the state tournament after a two-year absence. They’ll do it with a guard-heavy roster and plenty of interchangeable parts, led by Clune, a Division I prospect who led the team in points (16.9) and rebounds (8.7) last season. Tate hopes that versatility comes in handy on defense in finding mismatches to flummox opposing offenses and can overcome Dutchtown’s lack of size inside. “We believe we can compete with anybody,” Tate said.

ELCA

Last season: 6-16

Region: 5-A

Coach: Keith Batchelor (sixth season)

Returning starters: G Casey Durham (5-7, So.), C Jordan Fielding (5-9, Jr.).

Others to watch: F Abigail Rogers (5-9, Fr.), PG Parker Pinholster (5-5, Fr.).

Outlook: The Lady Chargers will be relying on a lot of upcoming freshmen to play key roles. Batchelor said the majority of the freshmen were members of the school’s softball team that reached the Elite 8 last month. As eighth-graders last season, the freshmen went 17-1 playing mostly a JV schedule. This season will provide playing experience and learning for the team as they continue to build for the future. Although they are young, Batchelor said the team should compete this season.

Forest Park

Last season: 23-7

Region: 4A-AAAAA

Coach: Steven Cole (fourth season)

Returning starters: PG Kayla Potts (5-9, Jr.); PF Tiffany Wilson (6-0, Junior); C Kanisha Tharpe (6-1, Soph.); PF Breasia McElrath (6-0, Soph.).

Others to watch: PG Shakira Thompson (5-5, Jr.); I’Mani’ Richards (5-9, Jr.).

Outlook: The Panthers lost a lot of senior leadership from last season, including standout Ashlee Cole, but look ready to reload for another deep run into the state playoffs. Due to injuries last season to key post players, Tharpe and McElrath saw valuable minutes in pressure situations that Cole says helped mature them beyond their years. And with Wilson’s return from a knee injury and Potts, who maybe one of the areas most talented point guards, returning from injury in December, Forest Park will once again be a dangerous team.

Jonesboro

Last season: 25-6

Region: 4B-AAAA

Coach: Lamar Harris (first season)

Returning starters: PG Victoria Florence (5-6, Sr.); C Kimberly Dawkins (6-1, Sr.); SG Briana Benson (5-10, Sr.).

Others to watch: SG Raven Wynn (5-6, Sr.); SG Ashley Hand (5-7, Sr.).

Outlook: Harris has inherited a state playoff ready squad in his first season at the helm of the program. The Lady Cardinals are confident, coming back from last season’s semifinal finish where they lost 51-35 to Southwest Dekalb. Players and coach alike have said not much has changed, save a few philosophical tweaks on defense. Dawkins, who transferred from Lovejoy last season, had an immediate impact on the team. She averaged 10.1 points and 14.2 rebounds while Benson averaged 15.7 points last season. The continued emergence of Florence could bring another long playoff run.

Locust Grove

Last season: 1-26

Region: 4A-AAAA

Coach: Greg Shook (fourth season)

Returning starters: G Sabiyah Broderick (5-10, Sr.); F Taylor Delasbour (5-10, So.)

Others to watch: SG Rochelle Brooks (5-9, So.); Zyra Rayford, Fr.; SG Tameya Warrez, Jr.; PG Taniya Warrez, So.; Eyanna Wright, So.

Outlook: What gives the Lady Wildcats hope this season? For starters, the return of senior leader Sabiyah Broderick, an all-region caliber player, and talented sophomore Taylor Delasbour who started last season as a freshman. Even more, the addition of Tameya and Taniya Warrez, sisters who moved in from Oklahoma and instantly improve Locust Grove’s athleticism and speed. Then getting Rochelle Brooks back after an injury-plagued season. Even so, the Lady Wildcats are still young. “Right now we want to play for respect in the region,” Shook said.

Lovejoy

Last season: 14-11, lost to Fayette County in first round of Class AAAA playoffs

Region: 2-AAAAA

Coach: Leon Dillard (second season)

Returning starters: G Morgan Jackson (5-5, Jr.), F/G Chelona Holmes (5-8, Jr.)

Others to watch: F Mariah Gray (5-9, So.), G Carman Woodard (5-7, So.), C Alexis Davis (6-1, So.), F Crystal Williams (5-10, Sr.).

Outlook: Dillard has been splitting his time between his assistant football coaching duties and shaping the basketball team back into a playoff-caliber group. Although only two starters return, several players from last season got a lot of playing time during the Lady Wildcats run to the playoffs. Some players will have to assume new roles as 67 percent of the team’s scoring is gone do to graduation. Dillard said that Holmes will be counting on to help with the scoring. As a freshman, he said she did well on the JV level. In the early stages of the season, the Lady Wildcats will be counting on its defense and rebounding.

Luella

Last season: 18-11, lost first round of Class AAAAA tournament

Region: 2-AAAAAA

Coach: Michelle Smith (first season)

Returning starters: F/C Shantay Baldwin (5-11, Sr.); F Brianna Moore, Jr.

Others to watch: G/F Sade Jacobs, Fr.; PG Carrington Johnson (5-6, Sr.).

Outlook: First-year coach Michelle Smith left the college coaching ranks for a Luella team that has some big shoes to fill — Britney Guy and Amber Griffin. Guy was the Henry Daily Herald’s girls player of the year. Griffin signed with Coppin State. It leaves Smith with the most experience on her roster in the post with Baldwin and Moore. Johnson adds speed and quickness. But the Lady Lions’ chances of making it six straight state tournament appearances will rely on a cast of new characters. “This will be a rebuilding year,” Smith said.

Morrow

Last season: 9-16

Region: 2-AAAAAA

Coach: Anthony McKissic, Sr. (first season)

Returning starters: SG Rhein Beamon (5-10, Soph.); C Shadarian Beasley (6-0, Sr.); SG Ditara Pack (5-6, Soph.); SG Deja Jackson (5-6, Sr.).

Others to watch: Pack and Beamon.

Outlook: McKissic says that his returning starters have played together for so long that they could pass the ball to each other blindfolded. Beamon scored 15 points, had 12 rebounds and eight assists during Morrow’s scrimmage win Tuesday against Carver-Atlanta. Good chemistry and suffocating defense should be the formula for success for the Mustangs this season. McKissic was previously an assistant on the boys squad at Morrow.

Mount Zion

Last season: 7-17

Region: 4A-AAAAA

Coach: Tiesha Wilson

Returning starters: PG Tynesha Parks (5-2, Jr.); SG Dormasha Brooks (5-6, Jr.); SF Vivian McDougald (5-10, Sr.).

Others to watch: SG Tyeisha Juham (5-8, Fr.); PF Tyanna Juham (5-10, Fr.); SF Fredeja Ransom (5-6, Fr.).

Outlook: The Bulldogs are young, scrappy and quick, according to Wilson, and a team who’s speed and athleticism “will sneak up on a lot of people this season.”

Mundy’s Mill

Last season: 21-7, lost in first round of the Class AAAA tournament to Alcovy

Region: 4A-AAAAA

Coach: Tu Willingham (second season)

Returning starters: G Moneshia Dyer (5-6, Sr.), F Tattyana LaRocque (5-9, Sr.)

Others to watch: F Alana Fraley (5-8, C), G Kelsi Arnold (5-6, So.).

Outlook: Leading scorer Brianna McQueen has graduate, but Dyer has been waiting in the wings the last two seasons. She is expected to lead the Tigers, who hope to return to the post season. Last season, Dyer averaged 12 points and 5.4 assists per game. Willingham is expecting a big season from Arnold, who contributed a lot of minutes last season as a freshman. The coach says he likes Arnold’s toughness, which should be a big plus for the team.

North Clayton

Last season: 12-12

Region: 4B-AAAA

Coach: James Morrow (second season)

Returning starters: G Alejandra Anderson (5-6, Sr.), C Janay Alexander (5-9, Jr.), F Lorenda Holston (5-8, Sr.).

Others to watch: G Christal Williams (5-3, So.)

Outlook: Expectations are running high for the Lady Eagles this season as Morrow is re-united with several former players from his middle school days at North Clayton Middle. When you coached at the nearby middle school, the team compiled a 36-6 record. This team is very athletic especially with Holston on the floor. She is one of the top sprinters in the state. The Lady Eagles will be without Williams until January after she returns from an ACL injury. As a freshman last season, Williams averaged 14 points per game. “These girls are very familiar with my coaching style and what I expect from them,” Morrow said.

Ola

Last season: 11-15

Region: 4A-AAAAA

Coach: Brooks Case (first season)

Returning starters: None

Others to watch: SF Lindsay Williford (5-10, Soph.); PF Bradleigh Hooper (6-1, PF).

Outlook: Even before the season’s first game, injuries have plagued coach Brooks in his first year with the Mustangs. Their lone returner, senior Ja’Tora Jenkins, went down with a torn ACL during a recent practice. Jenkins is set to undergo surgery soon and will be out for the entire season. Guards Alexis Cornell (ankle) and Taylor Snazely (mono) should return soon to help compliment Ola’s front court which looks to be the strength of the team.

Riverdale

Last season: 8-16

Region: 4B-AAAA

Coach: Jacquesa Smith (first season)

Returning starters: G Erica Burnham (5-7, Jr.), C Sequoia Nelson (6-1, Sr.), F/C Keimairra Haylock (6-1, Jr.), G Tonetria Thomas (5-7, Jr.).

Others to watch: F/C Deana Turner (6-0, Sr.), G Raven Miller (5-6, Sr.), G Anistasia Wilder (5-4, Sr.), G Angel Cooper (5-4, Fr.), G Brianna Andrews (5-6, Fr.).

Outlook: Smith has been in the Clayton County since 2005 and coached the Riverdale JV boys’ team last season. She has taken over from Tony Brinson, who is now the school’s boys varsity coach. Smith will employ an up tempo style that will rely on the team’s quickness. “The team has been adjusting well in the preseason to what we are trying to do,” Smith said.

Strong Rock

Last season: 20-8, lost to Trion in state play-in game.

Coach: A.C. McCullers (sixth season)

Returning starters: F/G Candler Gregory (5-7, Sr.), Ashlyn Butts (5-7, Sr.).

Others to watch: C Molly Gayner (5-10, Sr.), G Amber Sundeen (5-2, Sr.).

Outlook: After reaching the Georgia High School Association playoffs for the first time in school history last season, the Lady Patriots have a solid foundation to build on this season. McCullers, who built a powerhouse at Morrow, will rely on several incoming freshman from a team that won 17 games last season to help. Gregory is the leading returning starter after averaging 17 points last season. With several returning seniors leadership shouldn’t be a problem as the team looks to get back into the playoffs.

Union Grove

Last season: 8-15

Region: 4A-AAAAA

Coach: Dock Gammage (fourth season)

Returning starters: G Ashlyn Fluker (5-6, Sr.); F Treva Hickey (5-8, Jr.); G Koi Kizzie (5-8, Jr.).

Others to watch: F Megan Betsa (5-9, Sr.); G Carolyn Byl (5-4, Sr.).

Outlook: The Wolverines program has averaged nine wins a season since the 2006-07 school year and never made the state tournament. Now they move into a subregion with an improving Morrow team and playoff contenders Drew, Forest Park and Mundy’s Mill. And the Lady Wolverines will do so without a lot of size. But that hasn’t diminished Union Grove’s goals. “We have high expectations for the season,” Gammage said.

Woodland

Last season: 21-10, lost first round of the Class AAAA tournament.

Region: 4A-AAAA

Coach: Ashley Maddox (first season)

Returning starters: G Care’ Bacon (5-6, Sr.); F Nicole Findura (6-3, Sr.); G Morgan Jones (5-10, Sr.); G Lindsey Reed (5-7, Sr.); G Mecca Sneed (5-5, Jr.).

Outlook: Last season’s first-round exit in the state tournament — the second straight — is now officially a frustrating trend for the young program. But with every returning starter back, Woodland and first-year head coach Ashley Maddox hope that trend changes. Jones is the leader, a versatile player who can slide in at four different positions. Reed is the shooter. Findura is the post presence. After those three plus Bacon and Sneed, the Lady Wolfpack roster lacks varsity experience.

— Compiled by Derrick Mahone, Brian Paglia and Gabriel Stovall