Brittanny Johnson noticed something peculiar about the comments she got from fellow coaches and friends when she was named Evanston’s new head girls basketball coach.
“People congratulated me and said, you COULD really be good,” Johnson recalled. “They didn’t say you ARE that good.”
That lack of respect — perceived or actual — from outside the program will serve as fuel for the fire for a senior-dominated Wildkit team that wants to put ETHS on the state map and opens the 2016-17 season Tuesday night against Wheaton Warrenville South at the Schaumburg Thanksgiving Classic tournament.
With four starters returning from a team that reached the sectional semifinals a year ago, Evanston’s aiming higher even though there are skeptics out there who don’t doubt the talent level — but may doubt the commitment level and the discipline needed to stamp the Kits as a true threat to reach the Final Four this year.
The Wildkits, however, don’t doubt themselves.
“I think we can aim high with everyone we have returning, and we added one of the most dynamic freshman players in the state,” said Johnson. “We are trying to get Downstate. But we’re still a team with a lot to prove, and we’ll have to prove it every single game.
“The girls feel they’re one of the elite teams in the state and they want to show everyone. We played them at the Christmas tournament (at Dundee Crown) every year when I was at Fenwick, and Evanston had the reputation of being really good, but the knock was that they lacked discipline.
“They’ve never really taken that next step but these girls have made the decision that they want to leave a legacy at Evanston and they’ve made the commitment to change the culture. They all want to be coached hard, and their commitment level has been outstanding so far. I haven’t seen that kind of commitment at any school I’ve been at before.
“There could be some rough spots for us the first couple of weeks, but I think we’ll work through them. People have already risen to the occasion — we’ve asked them to do things they’ve never done before — and I think something special is happening here.”
Returning starters Leighah-Amori Wool, Krystal Forrester, Allysah Boothe and Briana Miller are all back for their final high school seasons. A fifth starter, Savannah Norfleet, decided not to play this year so she could focus on her school work, so Johnson will choose from a deep squad that includes juniors
Tamia Banks, Amaiya Johnson and freshman Kayla Henning to fill out the starting lineup.
Six-foot senior Leah Robinson and 5-11 sophomore SyAnn Holmes are also varsity veterans who would start for most of the opposing teams on the ETHS schedule this season. Help will also come juniors September McDonald, Diamond Lasenby , Nadia Thorman-McKay and Madailein Carey.
With her first basket or free throw Tuesday against Wheaton South, the 6-foot Wool will become the all-time leading scorer for the ETHS girls program. She is currently tied with Danielle McKinley (1997-200) with 909 total points and should easily surpass the 1,000-point plateau, probably before Christmas.
But while her classmates in the halls at ETHS can recite every statistic put up by boys’ standout Nojel Eastern, Wool is a four-year starter and a Division I college prospect who has flown under the radar even at Evanston.
Johnson knows she can count on the versatile senior for a key 3-point basket — she’s also the career leader at Evanston with 105 made baskets from long range — a rebound in a crowd, or to break an opponents’ full-court press.
“We’re going to take full advantage of Leighah’s versatility this year,” vowed the new coach. “She’s playing like someone with a lot to prove, although I can’t figure out why she has to prove anything. I’ve never had anyone like her, someone who can play the 1 through 5 positions like she can.
“I guess she hasn’t gotten the recognition because she’s so well-rounded you can’t focus in on just one thing that she does well. She literally can do everything you want a basketball player to be able to do. I am looking for her to be a little more aggressive this year. She’s such a fantastic kid and I’m really looking forward to working with her.”
“Maybe I do feel a little bit unappreciated,” Wool said. “Some people at school don’t take it as seriously as what Nojel’s done since I play girls basketball. But I really don’t mind it. I just like playing with this team, scoring points and winning.
“This year Coach Johnson wants me and Krystal to take on more of a leadership role and to hold everyone else accountable, every day, to further the program and help make us all better. I remember what it was like when I came in as a freshman, when there were no attitudes among the seniors and everyone worked really hard. That really helped mold me to where I want to be now as a senior.
“We started our preseason work earlier this year and Coach has already showed us that she doesn’t take a lot of nonsense. We’re doing a lot of running — I still hate running and we do it a lot — but we’ve been waiting for that kind of discipline. Now things seem like they’re more structured, and we’re not just running, we’re running with a purpose.”
With Norfleet no longer in the backcourt picture, Johnson will count on the 2.0 improved versions of Boothe and Miller to apply pressure that leads to easy baskets for the Wildkits in their up-tempo mode that the new coach prefers.
Boothe will handle the point guard duties and Miller looks to pick up the scoring pace after having already established herself as a defensive stopper. Her 1-on-1 defense was crucial for the Wildkits last year in a regional tournament victory over Maine West.
“Both Allysah and Brianna really look good,” Johnson praised. “We’re putting a lot of responsibility in their hands, and I think they’re ready for the challenge. They’re more confident now because they’re seeing a lot more of their shots go in.”
Forrester, like Wool a four-year starter, will also look to boost her offensive numbers while providing her usual strong defense against enemy post players and leadership in the locker room.
And, although the new coach inherits a veteran squad, complacency among the starters shouldn’t be an issue because they’ll be challenged every day in practice by players who aren’t content to be stuck on the bench.
“We don’t lose much, I don’t think we lose anything when we go to the bench,” Johnson pointed out. “That’s a problem that’s great for any coach to have. I think our second unit will be very, very good. It’s rare to be this deep at the high school level.”
The Wildkits are the defending champions at the Schaumburg tourney. They open Tuesday at 8 p.m. versus Wheaton South, and the round-robin tournament continues Thursday against St. Charles East (6:30 p.m.) and Saturday versus Stevenson (10 a.m.). They’ll also meet host Schaumburg and St. Viator next week.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.