Despite the fact that he’s got nine returning players on this year’s basketball team, Damon Smith, the coach of the Jefferson girls, finds himself in a difficult position.
“Eight or nine of these girls could start on other teams,” said Smith, who is entering his third year as the girls varsity coach. “That’s why all the pressure is on me. I can’t mess this up. We have to at least go to the state tournament with this team because we’re so deep.
“It’s scary to think about it.”
Okay, so great potential isn’t that bad of a problem for a coach coming into a season. But nonetheless, it is a challenge that Smith is looking forward to.
“I tell the girls it’s my problem to have and it’s a problem that I want: to be this deep and to try to put it together,” he said.
Smith has a familiarity with his team in that he coached many of the girls when they were in middle school. The kids have all played together for quite some time. Last year’s team finished the season at 8-14.
While it was an up-and-down kind of year, many of the players vying for starting positions this year, played their way into starting positions last year as sophomores and juniors.
The biggest difference between this year’s team and last year is that the players have gained valuable experience and as Smith explained, this team has a rather high basketball IQ.
“I told the girls, you have free range,” Smith said. “You all are smart enough to know when to make decisions. I don’t want to yell out what I want you to do because the other coach hears me. If I yell it out, you hear me and the other team hears me too.”
While stealth is important, Smith has confidence in this group’s ability to grasp the offense and to make decisions.
“I don’t want them to be robots,” Smith said. “I want them to have free reign within the offense to do what they think is right. Just go play the game.”
Smith wants his team to focus on winning games, not trying to keep from losing games.
“Now, with the experience these girls have,” Smith said. “I don’t have to micromanage and I don’t want to. I don’t want them to play to not make a mistake. I want them to play ball. If we make a mistake, fine, learn from it and move on. I don’t want them to play thinking ‘If I make a mistake, he’s going to take me out of the ballgame.” I want them to play free. If it’s a good shot, shoot it.”
Everyone knows about Christiana Armstrong, a returning junior forward who averaged around 15 points per game last year en route to an all-conference first team selection as a sophomore. She’s going to automatically draw a double team from most opponents this year. Armstrong is also a post player with a nice eye for the pass.
“If you’re cutting to the basket and she’s covered up, she’ll hit you,” Smith said.
The options for the Cougars this year will be many.
There are plenty of unlikely inside-out combinations for this year’s team.
“I can put people almost anywhere on the floor,” Smith said.
At a scrimmage earlier this season, Smith said he had great success, regardless of the look his team took on.
“We had five or six different lineups and we didn’t miss a beat,” Smith said. “I had all my bigs in with one guard. I want to be able to do stuff like that to keep the other team off balance.”
Jefferson’s overall balance should play a large role. The team has a formidable front line with Armstrong at 6-foot-0, Macie Chrisman at 6-2 and Amari Wooden is 6-0. The trio is strong in the paint and elsewhere, as Smith explained.
“Christiana can hit jumpshots from the outside and Macie Chrisman can hit jumpers from the outside,” Smith said. “Amari can do it all, she’s the most athletic girl on the team.”
Smith explained that Chrisman, a junior, focused on volleyball the last two years and she missed basketball so she came back. “She’s going to be a big help this year,” Smith said. “She’s going to play center and probably some power forward.”
There’s lots of quality depth at guard and forward on this year’s team: Almost an embarrassment of riches. Ashtin Hoover, a shooting guard, was second team all-conference last year.
Jordan Carr, the team’s starting point guard, is an extraordinary athlete. In track, she was part of Jefferson High’s state championship 4x100 meter relay team.
“She stepped up two years ago as a freshman in a sectional championship game,” Smith said. “Jordan’s shooting ability is coming along. She handles the ball well. Her decision making abilities are good.”
Catrina Myers, brings a lot to the Cougars’ backcourt.
“Catrina is tough,” Smith said. “She’s a shooter. She can defend. She’s very versatile.”
Ashtin Hoover and Catie Brown can both provide an offensive spark, Smith said.
Hoover, a second team all-conference selection last year, is a known quantity. At times last season, she was a spark for the Cougars at shooting guard.
“Those two are great shooters,” Smith said. “If I need a three at the end of the game, they’re going to be on the floor.
Smith is also expecting plenty from guard Lacie Lewis, a first team all-conference JV player from last year. Duane Holmes, who coached Smith on the JV team last year and is an assistant for Smith, feels that Lewis brings a lot to the table in terms of effort.
“She’s one of the hardest working kids I’ve ever been around,” he said. “She’ll always give you everything she has every play. Just an all around tough girl. She’s going to go get the ball. She’ll run though a brick wall.
Brown, junior, is a sharp shooter.
“She’s probably one of the best shooters I have,” Smith said. “She’s a spot shooter. You leave her open, she’s going to hit it.”
Defensively, Smith looks for a lot from Korina Smith and Heaven Murray.
“Korina will likely guard the other team’s best player, even if it’s not a guard. Korina will guard the other team’s best player. She’s real strong,” Smith said. “If I don’t have Smith in, Murray will guard the other team’s best player. Korina is a little more physical and Heaven is a little quicker. If I have them both in at the same time, and Catrina Myers, we’re going to get a lot of pressure on the ball.”
Murray is a sophomore who brings a lot of versatility, as Smith explained.
“She worked her way into a starting position last year,” Smith said. “Heaven is one of my captains, cause she’s taken on that role of being a vocal leader so I named her one of my captains. Heaven works hard. She came to every offseason workout. Heaven is a basketball player. That’s all she does. She can play point guard if I need her to, shooting guard and small forward. Very versatile.”
Smith feels that Maia Batt-Bicke, a junior, will be difference maker.
“She’ll play small forward,” Smith said. “Maia is my enforcer. She does a lot of the little things. She’s a Dennis Rodman type. If you need a rebound, she’s going to go get it. She’s not very tall. She’s only 5-8, but she plays a lot bigger than 5-8. She’s a hustle person.”
The team’s lone freshman is Mackenzie Brezovic, a player that Smith feels is mature beyond her years “She reminds me of Korina,” Smith said. “She plays a lot of travel ball and has a high basketball IQ, which was one of the the main reasons why she made the varsity. She does not play like a freshman at all. I try to have her stick with Korina during practice because they play so much alike.
Holmes summed things up for this year’s team.
“We have high expectations for this team,” he said.”We’re not trying to come off like we think we’re the best team, but we have high expectations for this year. We’ve had a great offseason and have a lot of returning starters. This should be our best team yet. There’s a lot of talent, a lot of versatility. We feel like we have everything we need to be successful.”