Down year? Kit girls out to prove skeptics wrong

It may take some time for the members of the Evanston Township girls basketball team to get on the same page this season.

But once the Wildkits do that, head coach Brittanny Johnson believes they’ll be the talk of the state of Illinois by season’s end.

Despite the fact that only one starter --- senior defensive sparkplug TaMia Banks --- is back from last year’s sectional finalist team, optimism is still running high within the program prior to Tuesday’s 8 p.m. opener against Wheaton Warrenville South at the Schaumburg Thanksgiving Tournament.

The Wildkits ended a tremendous three-year run by the Class of 2017 in Johnson’s first year at the helm. But to Johnson, the graduation of six seniors --- including the program’s leading career scorer, Leighah-Amori Wool ---  doesn’t signal the end of something special.

Instead, she sees it as the first step in creating a perennial state contender.

“I think we have the opportunity to be really good again this year,” said the second-year head coach. “I think these seniors are just as talented as last year’s class and they’re already holding the younger girls accountable. They don’t like it when people say oh, Evanston’s going to have a down year. They’ve got a lot to prove, to themselves and to everyone else.

“My expectations won’t change. I came to Evanston (after coaching at the collegiate level at Kennedy-King) because you can compete every year for at least a sectional championship here. We may start out low, but we’ll build and build and build. We’ll get better every day and be the team we’re supposed to be in January. The future is very bright here all through the program. We’re building something special here.”

Four seniors, five juniors and three sophomores will make up the varsity roster and only two of those players, Banks and sophomore guard Kayla Henning, saw much court time a year ago. Both should thrive as Johnson moves the program in more of an up-tempo direction, on offense and on defense.

“We do have a lack of in-game experience, and we don’t have girls who have played together for a long time like last year’s group,” the coach said. “But this group really feels like ‘my’ team. I’m being extremely tough on them in practice, trying to push them to their limits, and they’re competing hard every day. This is a team that’s more apt at the up-tempo style I want to play. We’ll be a gritty team and we won’t be out-worked by anyone.”

Based on summer performances and preseason practices, Wildkit fans can expect to see Banks, Henning, junior SyAnn Holmes and senior Nadia Thorman-McKey in the starting lineup for most of the squad’s early games. ETHS plays 5 games in 10 days at the Schaumburg tournament, where the Kits are the defending champions.

Other players to watch are seniors Amaiya Johnson and Madailein Carey, juniors Elizabeth Ayeni, Delaney Brooks, Najidah Laude and Amena Alexander; and sophomores Ambrea Gentle and Jayla Turchin. Both Henning and the 6-foot-2 Gentle could be considered “rising sophomores” --- a catch-phrase for players on the radar of college coaches --- in the state of Illinois, and the 5-9 Turchin is a move-in from Niles West who started for the Wolves’ varsity as a freshman before suffering back problems .

Brooks is an example of the versatility that’s found throughout the roster, having played both the point and scoring guard positions as an underclassman.

“We have a lot of kids who can play multiple positions,” Johnson said, “and they know they have to produce on a daily basis to be on the court. I think that’s the lesson they learned from the seniors last year, that you have to earn your spot, keep it and force the coach to leave you in there.

“I think we’re actually a better shooting team that we were last year, but we really want our staple to be that we’re one of the best defensive teams in the state. I think we’ll have a different leader in our scoring and rebounding every night. TaMia will use her experience to help the younger girls navigate the varsity waters for the first time, and her maturity and growth over the last 2 years has just been incredible.

“Kayla showed us some flashes of greatness last year and now she feels 100 percent (after taking it easier than usual over the summer due to issues with her back). She’s stronger and she’s in much better shape. My expectations remain high for her, but I don’t want to put too much pressure on someone who’s only a sophomore. She really wants to help make all the other players around her better.”

The 5-foot-9 Holmes, who earned a varsity spot as a freshman but didn’t play much under the new coach last season, could be the player to help the Kits get to the next level.

“SyAnn has such versatility that she can play the No. 2 through No. 5 positions, with her size and ability,” Johnson praised. “She didn’t have much of an opportunity playing behind those seniors last year, but she was willing to wait her turn. Now, I think she’s ready. She has a great basketball IQ and she’s improved her shooting, too.  She just continues to grow and improve, and by the end of the season, I think everyone will be talking about SyAnn.

“Last year we were an awesome rebounding team, and to play an up-tempo game like we want to play, you have to rebound. And at times I’ve seen sometimes our decision-making is not that great. But those are things we can work on to get better as a team.”

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

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