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Kit girls building matchup nightmare on court

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Matchup is the latest buzzword connected to basketball at the pro and collegiate levels.

You can’t watch a television broadcast of any game for more than 15 minutes without the color commentator using that term.

It might also apply at the high school level, at least if Evanston girls basketball coach Brittanny Johnson has anything to say about it. Entering her third season at the helm of the Wildkits, Johnson’s goal is to create matchup nightmares for opponents with a deep team that includes plenty of 3-point shooters and four players who are listed at 6-foot or taller, the biggest roster in program history.

Putting the pieces together is the challenge for Johnson, whose squad opens at the Schaumburg Thanksgiving Tournament on Tuesday at 8 p.m. against Wheaton Warrenville South. The Wildkits will play 5 games in 11 days in the round-robin tourney.

Evanston won 27 and 20 games in Johnson’s first two years as a high school coach and the expectation bar is still set high, even though injuries have slowed the progress of two of the squad’s most experienced players — all-conference junior point guard Kayla Henning and senior forward SyAnn Holmes — for the start of the season.

Henning is expected to start the season opener even though she’s only 6 months removed from surgery for a torn ACL and will likely wear a brace for the entire season. Holmes is trying to work her way back from a severe ankle injury she suffered in July.

Matching up against the Kits will be tough even if those two players aren’t 100 percent yet.

“We have a dominant post player in Ambrea Gentle (6-2 all-conference choice), and our other big girls (senior Liz Ayeni, junior Kaylen Hall, freshman Lola Lesmond) can all run the floor,” said Johnson. “You don’t see this kind of size a lot in high school programs and I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people, because we haven’t had that kind of inside-outside dynamic before. Ambrea was so dominant by the end of last year that her presence in the post created a lot of wide-open looks for our shooters.

“Ambrea is kind of a throwback, a dominant post player, and we want to use her  the way New Trier used to use (All-American) Jeannie Boehm. We’ll have times this year when we’ll go really big, and some of our bigger girls (Lesmond, who moved to Evanston from France this fall) and (5-10 junior) Jayla Turchin have even run the point in our practices. This team won’t look like Evanston teams of the past.  We’re big and we’re still pretty athletic. This is probably the deepest team I’ve had.”

That depth of talent has allowed Johnson to embrace the uncertainty surrounding a lineup that may have to get along without big minutes from Henning and Holmes, at least at first.

“This is the first team I’ve had where our destiny is unknown — and I’m OK with that,” she said. “We have so many question marks. We need SyAnn and Kayla to be vocal leaders while they’re working their way back from those horrible injuries.  We have a point guard in (junior) Tyler Mayne who’s never played regularly at the varsity level. We’ll need (senior guard) Delaney Brooks to step into a bigger role, too.
“We need a lot of girls to step up. But I believe in them 100 percent. People outside the program I know are telling me they think we’re a year away, but I don’t think we’re a year away. I don’t see why we can’t do it — now!”

Mayne’s development at the point guard position will ease the blow of Henning’s injury. The 5-foot-7 junior didn’t play much as a sophomore (11 games) but has blossomed since Johnson turned the position of floor general over to her.

Mayne’s improvement has also helped push Henning to get better, according to the head coach.

“Tyler really had a great summer for us,” Johnson pointed out. “No one impressed me more than she did this summer. She looks great and her leadership has been phenomenal. No one else really knows about her right now, but they will by the end of the season.

“We’ll really have a two-headed monster at guard with the two of them once Kayla comes back 100 percent. Tyler’s really grateful for the opportunity (after missing the final month last year due to an ankle injury and only playing in 7 games her first year in the program due to multiple concussions). We thrust her into that position and she has really risen to the occasion. She’s a really good shooter at guard, she’s very encouraging to all her teammates, and she makes us a very different team.”

Johnson believes that Brooks, who shot 33 percent from 3-point range as a junior, is poised for a big year. The steady senior has played both the 1 and 2 guard positions in her career at ETHS.

“In our biggest games last year, Delaney was great,” the coach praised. “She willed herself into becoming a big-time player as a kid who worked her way up through our program. She’s almost automatic now as a shooter, and it’s so impressive watching her continue to grow as a player.”

Junior Ariel Logan will inherit the likely role as defensive stopper, after 2018 graduate TaMia Banks handled that thankless chore of guarding opponents’ top threats the past two years. Help will also come from seniors Amena Alexander and Najidah Laude, junior Clare Corydon and sophomore Rashele Olatunbosun .

The most intriguing player on the roster, however, might be the 6-foot Lesmond. The French import may not have the immediate impact that her older brother Louis is expected to provide for the ETHS boys team, but her skill set is already a notch above most high school freshmen.

She’ll pose a legitimate 3-point threat when she’s on the floor. “I think we’re a 3-point shooting team and that will be our bread and butter this year,” Johnson predicted.  “Lola can play any position, 1 through 5 for us, and she works really hard. There will definitely be a learning curve for her (new basketball system, new school, new country, language barrier, etc.) but she has a high basketball IQ and a high motor. When she hits her stride, she’ll be a big-time player for us. We’re so excited to have her here.”

Johnson, a former Fenwick High School star, has worked to upgrade the ETHS schedule every year since she took over and this year has added 3 shootout dates to the slate. The Wildkits will meet Chicago Simeon (Dec. 2), Madison Memorial of Wisconsin (Jan. 5) and Bishop Noll of Indiana (Jan. 19) at various sites, and have also added Lincoln-Way West to the schedule.

“My high school coach (Dave Power) never shied away from scheduling difficult games because he knew it would pay off for us in the postseason,” she said. “I would not be surprised if this is a tougher schedule than anyone else has, and I really think we’ll benefit from it.”

Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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