What a difference a year makes for Evanston girls basketball head coach Brittanny Johnson.
Johnson spent the summer of 2016 — and part of the regular season — just getting to know the players on a team that returned every starter from the previous year.
This summer? Johnson played a confidence game.
The second-year coach tried to instill some on-court confidence in the players who will succeed them, and firmly believes that the current squad can follow in the footsteps of one of the most successful classes in the history of the program.
A busy month of June reached a less-than-satisfying conclusion June 30th at the Loyola Academy Shootout, where the Wildkits whipped Hersey 35-20 but then suffered back-to-back losses to Mother McAuley (53-45) and host Loyola (55-41).
The jury is still out regarding just who will take over the leadership roles on the 2017-18 squad with players like all-time leading scorer Leighah-Amori Wool, Krystal Forrester, Brianna Miller, Leah Robinson, Cookie Boothe and Leah Robinson all going their separate ways to the college ranks.
Senior Tamia Banks is the only returning starter, and sophomore point guard Kayla Henning was sidelined for the entire month with back issues that first cropped up the second half of last season. The issue of searching for that leader (or two or three) is more complex than at first glance, because none of the seniors and juniors vying for spots this summer played more than a handful of varsity minutes besides Banks.
Johnson relishes the challenge of starting over after changing up the summer schedule to include team camp competition at Marquette and DePaul. Most of Evanston’s losses at those two events came against AAU all-star squads, not pure high school competition.
“We’re not a young team, not with all of those juniors and seniors, but we don’t have girls who have played a lot of varsity minutes,” the coach said. “The seniors have the hunger and want to play — but they’ve never had to be in the limelight when it matters. They’ve never been in that position.
“There’s a difference between being a role player on a team, and being a major factor for that team. These girls sat behind one of the best classes in school history (27-4 last year) and it will take time for them to understand their roles. The summer is just part of that process. I have high expectations, and I’m 100 percent certain that we’ll meet them.
“Last year we had great seniors who were dominant for us offensively, dominant defensively and dominant vocally. Now the others coming back are nervous about being that person. But we’re so athletic I think we have the potential to be an amazing defensive team — maybe better than last year — and I do think we’ll develop some good leadership.”
Henning’s physical woes delayed the progress of a player who’ll have the ball in her hands a lot when actual competition begins in November. But senior-to-be Amaiya Johnson seized on the opportunity to run the Kits’ attack, even though she’d never been a point guard prior to this summer.
“We looked really great the one game we played at DePaul, before Kayla got hurt again,” Johnson pointed out. “But the way Amaiya stepped in for us at the point had to be one of the high points for us all summer. She had a fantastic summer. She just said OK, I’ll do whatever the team needs and whatever we ask her to do. She had never really played the position before because we were so deep in the program. She made the most of her opportunity, and now we have even more depth at that position.”
Six-foot-2 sophomore Ambrea Gentle gave strong indications that she’ll be a post presence to be reckoned with for years to come in the Central Suburban League. She’s only just started to tap into her potential, and Gentle figures to keep opposing conference coaches up late at night figuring out ways to deal with her size and strength.
Gentle was one of the few bright spots in that summer-ending loss to a Loyola team that the Kits had defeated decisively earlier in June. She amassed 14 points and 9 rebounds versus the Ramblers in the typical summer format where there’s a running clock until the final two minutes of the half. She also grabbed 9 rebounds in the lopsided win over Hersey.
“Ambrea’s very raw because she hasn’t played basketball that long — she was more into volleyball at first — and I think she’ll be very, very good for us,” Johnson predicted. “With her size and her skill level, she’s going to be unguardable when she finally does put it all together. Her growth has really been unbelievable.”
Another plus at Loyola was the play of Nadia Thorman-McKey, who barely got off the bench as a junior after excelling for the junior varsity team as a sophomore. She hustled her way to an average of 8 points per game in the three-game shootout and flashed the energy that Johnson wants to see from every varsity hopeful.
“When I first took the job and walked into the gym last year, Nadia is the player I was most impressed with,” the coach recalled. “She’s so incredibly athletic and she loves to play defense. But the whole thing for Nadia is a confidence thing, and it’s hard to play people who don’t have any confidence. She’s already told me that won’t be an issue this year. She could turn out to be the biggest surprise of all for us. We need her to get her talent to match her confidence level in herself.
“I love how hard Nadia plays. She’s all over the court and her intensity and her effort are really amazing. I think little by little they’re all starting to believe that I believe in them.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.