Since returning to the lineup, junior guard Amoni Walker has been averaging 9.3 points for the Jonesboro Cardinals. (Staff Photo: Derrick Mahone)
JONESBORO — When you have to replace four starters from a team that came within six points of playing for a state title, some early season struggles are expected.
If the lone returning starter misses the first few games of the season while you play several defending state champions, those struggles are definitely magnified.
This is the situation that Jonesboro girls’ coach Lamar Harris faced at the beginning of the season. The Cardinals’ lone returning starter Michaelle Smith missed several games at the beginning of the season while recovering from a shoulder injury sustained during volleyball season.
To add to the Cardinals’ woes, Amoni Walker was waiting to get clearance from her doctor while recovering from a torn ACL injury.
In their absence, Jonesboro started the season 0-4 while playing one of the toughest schedules in the state. The Cardinals opened with losses to defending state champions St. Francis (Class A-private), Norcross (AAAAAA) and Southwest DeKalb (AAAAA), as well as region foe Woodland.
Those losses came by an average of 25.7 points per game.
“We started against some top competition,” Harris said. “When you talk about playing teams like Norcross, St. Francis and Southwest DeKalb, that speaks for itself. We knew once we got everybody back that we would be a pretty good team.”
Jonesboro has recovered from a rocky start, and have come off the weekend schedule with a 9-7 overall record, but are 3-0 in the subregion. A 41-36 loss to a surprising Mount Zion team snapped a three-game winning streak coming into the week.
Smith has been leading the Cardinals with an 18.1 average. Last season, the 5-foot-11 junior was a role player while being surrounding by a talented senior cast. Her main responsibility last season as Jonesboro reached the Class AAAA semifinals, was to rebound and provide some scoring.
The role has increased as Smith is averaging a team-leading 18.1 points.
“Michaelle is the motor that makes this team run,” Harris said. “As the only returning starter, she knows what is expected. She is a very selfless player, who is the ultimate competitor.”
This past fall, Smith was named the Clayton News Daily volleyball Player of the Year after leading the Cardinals to the first round of the state playoffs. She was also named to the all-area team.
With a solid supporting cast, Smith said the team has a chance to repeat as region champion.
“We are starting to get good chemistry with everyone back,” Smith said. “I knew I had to step it up a notch. We don’t have a deep bench, but everyone is determined to win.”
And now that Walker is getting her confidence back following knee surgery, the Cardinals are starting to gel. In nine games, Walker is averaging 9.3 points and 3.3 assists per game. The team’s second-leading scorer has been junior Mahogany Hall, who is averaging 10 points per contest.
“I’ve started to get more confidence in my leg, and trusting it,” Walker said. “Now that everybody is back, we have been really motivated because of the way we started the season. Mike (Smith) has been helping us a leader of this team.”