The Lincoln County girls have been a dominant team in the 12th Region in recent years, and this season figures to be more of the same.
Cassandra McWhorter continued Lincoln’s string of 22+ win seasons when she took over as coach last year, leading the Lady Patriots to a 22-7 season and their fourth straight 45th District championship.
And McWhorter has most of her personnel back to keep the success rolling on.
The Lady Patriots return three starters, with junior guard Emily Fox, the team’s leading scorer, topping the list of key returnees. Fox led the team last season in 3-point, 2-point and free-throw shooting, finishing with 535 points or 18.4 points per game. Junior forward Sydney Harris, who led the team in rebounding last year with 5.6 per game, and sophomore guard Rachel Spangler, who followed with 4.5 rebounds a game, also return to give McWhorter a solid nucleus to build her team around. Add to the mix junior guard Ciara Saylor and junior forward Kourtney Belcher, two reserves who saw plenty of varsity action last season, and the Lady Patriots figure to continue to dominate the area.
“We’re young in the sense that we have no seniors this year, but we’re experienced with that youth,” McWhorter said. “It’s exciting to have a group of experienced juniors and a sophomore that has game experience under her belt. And I’m excited about our freshman class coming up, and the capabilities they have to mix with that group of kids.”
“I’m just excited all around to see what we are capable of doing this year,” she said. “The girls are all fired up and we’re all focused, and we have a common goal ahead of us as we go on our journey.”
The second-year coach says she has plenty of quality athletes to help her along the team’s journey to a hoped-for fifth straight district title and a 12th Region championship.
“The journey to get there is always fun and exciting and I think we’ve got a great group of girls who can get the job done,” said McWhorter.
She currently has a 10-player varsity roster with Chansler Gilbert, a junior, and freshmen Tiandra Hocker, Kelsi Honaker, Spencer Sims and Heidi Huffman rounding out the team. Gilbert was a key sub for Lincoln last year and Hocker, Honaker and Sims all saw varsity minutes as eighth-graders. Huffman played at Mercer County last season.
The experience these five bring to the table has McWhorter adding to her list of team “strengths.”
“Our ability to get after people defensively is our biggest strength but I think our ability to play 10-deep is going to be a big strength, too,” she said. “It may be a hardship for me, in how to figure out how to get them all in there.”
Improved play by the entire Lincoln squad during the summer and in preseason practice has McWhorter anticipating better execution on the floor this season.
“I think, overall, our biggest improvement for the team has been our level of communication. I know that was something that I harped on all last year. With our youth last year that was lacking, and I’ve seen over the summer that our intensity of play and our level of communication has really risen,” she said. “Individually, I think they’ve all made improvements and I’m excited to see that improvement as a whole.”
There are still some areas where McWhorter feels her team has room for improvement, namely team defense.
“Defense is definitely one of our areas that I think we can be strong at but, at the same time, is probably one of the biggest areas that we need to work on,” she said. “We’re still not there yet and not where we are capable of being. It’s both a strength and weakness.”
While Fox, Harris, Spangler, Saylor and Belcher have started in many practices and team play, McWhorter is reluctant to commit to a set five.
“I’m not a fervent believer in saying ‘This is our set five,’” said McWhorter. “We had our five that played this summer but I think, at any time, anybody is capable of starting.”
“I don’t put a real emphasis on who starts and who doesn’t start because we have an attitude of family not ‘me.’ Whatever it takes for us to get the job done on game night is what we’re going to do and that’s our focus.”
McWhorter has just five days before she has to choose her first starting lineup, with the Lady Patriots set to tip off on the 2011-12 season Monday at home against Pulaski County.
And the Lady Patriots can’t wait.
“I know the girls are definitely excited. I’ve had a countdown on the board in there (locker room), and they came in this morning and said, ‘One week away, coach. Seven days,” said McWhorter. “I think we still have things to work on this week. Hopefully, we’ll have some of the kinks worked out by Monday, but basketball’s a long season. I’m pleased that we still have things to work on because I don’t want them to get content or settled in too early.”