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Wildkit girls thrive as they turn up the heat

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The members of Evanston’s girls basketball team really turned up the heat on the opposition this summer, and that’s just the way new head coach Brittanny Johnson wants it.

Using full-court pressure rarely employed in the program over the past 15 years, the Wildkit girls buried most of their foes during the month of June, winning 19 of 20 games and proving they belong on the short list of contenders to win the Class 4A Illinois High School Association state title next February.

With five starters — Leighah Wool, Leah Robinson, Krystal Forrester, Cookie Boothe and Savannah Norfleet — returning from a team that finished 23-6 and lost to Trinity in the sectional tournament semifinals, Johnson knew she inherited a squad loaded with talent.

And a fullcourt 2-2-1 zone press is just an added weapon to help build a state contender.

“My teams at Kennedy-King (junior college) have always scored in the 70s and 80s, and I just think it’s a more exciting way to play the game,” Johnson said.

“I noticed on the tapes from last year that I watched that Evanston tended to walk the ball up the floor. That’s not the way I want to play.

“I don’t want us to be a pressing team for the entire 40 minutes, because any team (opponent) at this level will adjust at some point. But when we can get steals in the fullcourt it’s so much easier to get layups. How well these girls defend has been the real surprise this summer and it’s led to a lot of easy baskets. Our defense will provide a lot of instant offense and I think they’ve enjoyed the changes we’ve made so far.”

Evanston’s only loss was a one-point decision on the road at Montini. The Wildkits won the Loyola Summer Shootout in dominating fashion, defeating St. Ignatius 49-27 in the championship game. In two of those tourney wins — 52-17 over Wheeling and 57-20 over Resurrection — the losing team had more turnovers than points scored, and even the high school student running the scoreboard couldn’t always keep up with Evanston’s quick scores.

That full-court pressure is a different approach than past varsity coaches Elliot Whitefield and Steve Wool took. They preferred a halfcourt trap that was very effective at times, but a lack of depth (and fear of foul trouble for the starters) contributed to reining in the potential defensive pressure in many instances.

Johnson turned the players loose this summer, and the first-year coach may have the depth for that approach to carry over this winter. Besides having all 5 starters back, the summer campaign showed that Johnson can also rely on improved senior Brianna Miller — junior Tamia Banks and SyAnn Holmes, who now have a full season of varsity experience under their belts — freshman guard Kayla Henning, and junior forward Nadia Thorman-McKey, a high energy player off the bench.

Not many high school girls teams are that deep.

“I think our depth is our strong point,” Johnson noted. “If I sub someone in, we’re not losing anything at all. The talent is there. This is a very good team.”
Pressure-packed defense will play into the strengths of guards Boothe and Norfleet, who were relentless in summer games on top of that zone alignment.

For the diminuitive Booth, it’s an opportunity to score some easier points than in a halfcourt set. And Norfleet might be one of the best open floor players in the state of Illinois, with her quickness and long arms causing more turnovers than you can count.

“I love playing that up-tempo game,” Norfleet said. “I also play (AAU ball) with the Mac Irvin Fire team and we do a lot of trapping and pressing and running there. We’re a bunch of athletic girls, and this just lets us play. Coach Johnson has a different style. I like to get the ball and just go. It’s fun, and it pays off.”

“When we turn it up like that we play well together, and we have fun,” Boothe added. “When we go fullcourt like that and get basket after basket, that’s when you get momentum. I’m excited for the changes we’ve made. Coach Johnson wants us to get up 40 points and keep going! We want to keep the hammer down and not let other teams come back on us.

“When we played some of those teams at Trinity and Montini, you could tell they knew they didn’t have a chance against our pressure.”

Boothe will switch from the No. 2 guard position to the point this year, with Wool likely returning to a low post position. The versatile 6-footer will become the all-time leading scorer at ETHS when she scores her first point next season, and Wool could also wind up as the career leading rebounder with a big senior season, too.

“Now that I’m at the 1, I’m working on trying to improve my ballhandling and also on my shot,” Boothe said. “I’m mostly focusing on my leadership skills. I want no drama this season, and I want to be able to control the floor when I’m out there. Now that I’m a senior I’ve got to help the younger people when they don’t know what to do, and not let them get down on themselves. I’ve got to help them with their attitudes.”

“I think this will be a fun season for all of us, based on the foundation we’ve built already, ” Johnson said. “This summer has been a great start for us. These girls all want to put the work in to be successful, and it’s so refreshing for me as a coach to see that. Everyone is all in and they’re doing everything they can to make it work.”

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

Dennis Mahoney

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

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