Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of previews of area high school boys basketball teams.
Judie Mason’s little girls are growing up.
The girls who will play the most for Danville have been playing for a while now, some for as long as five years. But their coach said they are just now maturing to the point where they look like a good high school team, and she said that could make a world of difference for the Admirals this season.
“They act old enough and look like varsity players now,” Mason said. “The thing I enjoy about this team more than anything is they’re finally at varsity age. I said three years ago that I was going to play these kids and win or lose with them, that it would pay off eventually, and I believe this is the year that it’ll pay off.”
The Admirals won 10 straight games late last season and finished 21-8, but Mason said she believes they can do more. They are taking aim at regional and even statewide All “A” Classic championships, though they didn’t qualify for the statewide tourney last season, and they are trying to steel themselves for a longer stay in the 12th Region Tournament, where they were bounced from the first round in their first appearance in four years.
With so much experience and all but one player from last season’s team returning, there are no mysteries at Danville, neither for its opponents nor within its own practices.
“They know what I want, they know what I expect out of them. There’s no surprises out there,” Mason said.
Well, maybe one or two. For starters, guard-forward Kasey Young, a four-year starter who signed with Eastern Kentucky earlier this week and one of only two Danville seniors, has gotten stronger, and Mason said she has improved her ball-handling and defense as well.
“She’s going to be able to take it to the goal and finish this year. Kasey’s always been known as a shooter, and I’m trying to get her to be known as a player and not a shooter. Her 3-point shooting may suffer, but that’s OK. Her game’s going to be better in the long run because she can create,” Mason said. “I don’t want her to be complacent. We’ve got to push her, and she’s got to push herself to take it to the next level.”
Senior forward Jordan Leavell, the Admirals’ leading rebounder and an improved scorer last year, returns for her third year in the starting lineup. Senior forward Ieshia Mays has played only in a reserve role, but Mason said she could fill the role vacated by 2012 senior Jordyn Perry, who specialized in defense, rebounding and setting screens.
Juniors Essence Grey and Laken Grey return to the backcourt. They have been playing since they were sixth-graders, and Mason said both girls act and look like varsity players now. Sophomore Cameron McPherson, who ranked second in 3-point attempts and percentage behind Young, returns for her fourth varsity season.
Mason said Danville must develop more depth, and she said the possibility is there with sophomore guard NeNe Chenault and sophomore forward Breon Oliver, a first-year player, as well as eighth-graders Alyvia Walker and Kennedy Walker, part of a middle school team that won its conference tournament earlier this fall.
Mason said the fact that she’s getting along so well with the players and they’re getting along with each other is a testament to their maturity.
“It’s like, I guess, raising a teenager,” Mason said. “They go through all those rough spots, and then you finally get to where you like them, and I actually like them now. We actually like each other, and that makes it a whole lot more fun. With girls, if you don’t like each other, you’re not going to win.”
Keys to the Season
Mason said the Admirals must be not only more mature but also more powerful to be able to hang with the toughest teams on their schedule and teams they might meet in the All “A” and regional tournaments, and she thinks they are.
“We had 21 wins last year and 20 the year before, but the big teams are the games I think they had a hard time with, the strong, physical teams. I don’t think this year that people will be more physical than we are. I think we’re a lot stronger, I think we’re faster and I think we’re smarter, and that’s the key.”
Player to Watch
McPherson has contributed at the varsity level for three seasons and is already established as a shooting threat, and Mason said she has gone beyond being simply a shooter.
“She’s always been the sleeper,” Mason said. “Right now she’s my best all-around player as a sophomore.”
Chenault got some playing time as a freshman last season, and Mason she’ll have a much bigger impact this year.
“People are going to be surprised with NeNe this year,” Mason said. “NeNe was always where the ball was at, but she couldn’t finish it, she didn’t know what to do with it. I think now she’s more confident, and that was her biggest problem. ... And I think now you can see a whole lot more maturity in her.”
Danville’s lack of size comes with the obvious problems that go with that: They don’t have much of an inside game, and they don’t rebound well. The rebounding issue might not go away, but Mason said the Admirals can and must play better in the paint.
“We’ve got to establish an inside game if we’re ever going to take it to the next level,” she said. “If Kasey will put her mind to being inside, she will be amazed at what a better player she is, and she’s got to do it.”
Top Returning Players
Essence Grey, 5-5 Jr. G, 13.6p, 7.0a
Laken Grey, 5-6 Jr. G, 8.0p, 7.1r
Jordan Leavell, 5-10 Sr. F, 7.9p, 8.8r
Cameron McPherson, 5-5 So. G, 8.4p, 2.8r
Kasey Young, 5-10 Sr. G-F, 17.0p, 5.7r